Although I found this book interesting, I can’t say it broke new ground for me, as far as developing a concept of “evil”. For one thing, Peck never really convinced me of his definition of what evil is. His writing is heavily influenced by his religious convictions, which he freely admits in Chapter 1. Yet, this fact alone also resulted in a peculiar circular reasoning for me, as I read this book. In other words, it’s as if he already believed what he did about evil due to his religious beliefs before he even started down the path of trying to study it or understand it in a more clinical or psychiatric way. Thus, I was not sure if he was wanting to prove his religious beliefs with what he felt he had found in his clinical work, or vice versa. It was a confusing blend of both arguments simultaneously.
To be sure, parts of the book were interesting, especially the patient cases. But I’m not sure Peck ever clearly explained how an evil person would be any different from someone suffering from other mental or emotional illness. Clearly, many disturbed people do disturbing, even deranged, things. Sadly, we see this on the news every day. But how would we call some acts “evil” and not others? How is evil as a construct really defined? Does our perspective, lens and definition depend on where we are, when observing a situation?
I believe it does. I believe that when we try to define evil, we eventually run into problems of perspective and, especially, judgement. The need to be “‘right”. Obviously, if someone over there is “evil”, that must mean the folks over here are “not evil”, or “good.”
This is why it is so difficult to arrive at a clear definition of what exactly evil is. It requires, from my perspective, a rather egoic judgement of a situation, a need to be “right”.
Carolyn Myss touches on this issue in some of her lectures. She brings up the true story of an American man who was caught by the Nazis, and thrown into a concentration camp because of his Native American heritage. There, he was tortured repeatedly, and left starving to death in his cell.
One day after being tortured, a particular guard came in his cell and forced maggots down his throat. He felt a hatred towards this guard that consumed his entire soul. A short time later, the camp was liberated from the Nazis, and this man was lucky enough to be freed.
And yet, for years after, his life spiraled downward into alcoholism and other problems, as he was unable to recover from the horrors that he had endured in the death camp.
One night, in a feverish dream, the former guard from the camp appeared. He asked the former guard why he had shoved maggots down his throat that day. Was the torture he had already endured on the rest of his body not enough? How could he have done such a horrible, humiliating thing to him?
To which, the former prison guard said to him, “Torture you? I was trying to save you. Maggots were the only thing I had to keep you alive…”
Upon waking from this dream, this man had a profound realization of how deeply his view on what had happened had poisoned his life. He was finally able to move into the process of letting go of the trauma, and into forgiveness and true inner healing.
Did the spirit of the former guard really reach out and touch this man in a dream? What if the whole thing was just his imagination?”
There is no way to really know. And yet, it doesn’t really matter. Not really. Whether the dream was a message from this man’s soul, the spirit from the former guard coming to help him, or his subconscious, what mattered was this man’s ability to finally “see”. To finally let go of that which had been done unto him.
I do not know if Peck would have considered the guard “evil”, especially if he only knew about the first half of this story. He probably would have, for in his book, he does state that Nazis were “evil”. And yet, although I fully understand this pov, it misses the second half of the story, does it not? Not that the second half of the story makes the first half OK. But, in this case, there was a second half to the story, all the same. How would it have been if we had written off the former guard as “evil” and left it at that? How does it help us understand anything or “see” any more than meets the eye?
But alas, life is like this. Usually, we just don’t have the whole story. At any given time, we only see a part of what’s really at play. And so we are left with our judgments and perceptions. How deeply does our judgement or the need to be right impact how we see life and other people?
All I know is, the only thing that really helps any situation is being able to let go of the pain. The only thing that really transforms any difficult situation is to let in what our hearts need so desperately, the compassion and forgiveness for ourselves. Anything other way is like keeping the heart trapped in a bad dream. Even if we feel what happened to us was “evil”, or even just plain mean and unfair.
I find this story about this American Navajo codetalker thrown into a Nazi concentration camp so inspiring. The more I work with clients, the more I’m amazed at the resilience, strength and wisdom of the human spirit. We really have such an amazing ability to be able to overcome even the most horrific trauma or the darkest night.
This book was one out of many that have attempted to address why people do what they do, to themselves and to others. Although I didn’t agree with everything Peck concluded in this book, I still found it to be an interesting perspective.
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