Don’t let big evils justify small ones
The fact that there is evil in the world has become so apparent that we are numb to it. Mass shootings, terrorism, rape; we feign shock, or perhaps are genuinely shocked for a day or two, then return to life as normal. We have that sense of shock because we possess a conscience, a heart on which the fundamental rules of right and wrong are written. We are rightly outraged at the blatant disregard for human life, and at what people are capable of doing to one another. We desire change, but more often than not, we use events of big, undeniable evil to justify our own actions. We know we could never be capable of something as truly evil as a mass shooting, so we satisfy ourselves with the idea that we are good enough. We are nice, and therefore, we are good. Keep in mind Little Red Riding Hood from the musical “Into the Woods,” “Nice is different than good.”
But this is perhaps the more insidious side of man-made catastrophes. Loss of life and loss of innocence are enough to trouble any conscience, but people have become so aware of these that they become numb to their own dispositions. We rightly condemn a murderer, but do nothing to change the culture that nurtures anger.
Let me give a concrete example. Most people are good enough to have never raped or abused anyone. Congratulations. But have you ever used anyone for sex, or objectified anyone? It may not be rape, but the worst sexual crimes flow from an attitude of use. An attitude of use that has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s in the air that we breathe. This recent #Metoo campaign shows just how many people, especially women, have been raped, abused, or sexually harassed. St. John Paul II tells us that the opposite of love is not hate, but use. The sexual dysfunction in our culture does not come from hatred; most sexual offenders would deny hating their victims. Instead, it is using another person as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves. When news of a heinous sexual crime reaches people, they rightly condemn it. That is, until later in the day, when an opportunity to objectify another person comes up, either in their mind or physically. Soon enough the culture of use creates another person who takes it to its logical extreme by robbing someone of their innocence.
Most of us have never shot another person. Again, congratulations, you’re in good company. But chances are you have let anger get the best of you, or have hated another person in the pit of your gut. Not actively wishing them harm, but maybe feeding your sense of schadenfreude when misfortune strikes them. We know we would never hurt another person, but we let all kinds of anger and hatred seethe inside us, and we always have a justification for it. We were wronged first, so we keep a tight grip on burning coals, ignoring the fact that our hands are on fire.
All kinds of evil exist along a continuum. Conning an old woman out of her life savings is not the same as stealing a stapler from work. This is obvious. But large evils, committed by someone else, lead us to believe that because we aren’t as bad as that, we don’t have to change. Likewise, small evils build up, and we become numb to the erosion of conscience, until perhaps we ourselves commit a big evil. None of this is set in stone, however. None of this has to happen. We want to reform the world, to make it good. First we need to look at ourselves and take a sober look at who we are, what we’ve done and what we are letting ourselves become. We need to remove the plank from our own eyes and put in the hard work necessary to become good, not just good enough.