Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Soul Confronts Evil

Islands--"I Feel Evil Creeping In" (mp3)
Emmylou Harris--"You Don't Know Me" (mp3)

A friend of mine, a guy who likes to keep things on the "DL," recently joined Facebook, using Lamont Cranston as his nom de plume. If you don't know who Cranston was, he was the alter ego of The Shadow on the old radio serial. Lamont Cranston was a wealthy young man about town, a Bruce Wayne before there was a Bruce Wayne, and I suppose Batman draws some inspiration from The Shadow as well, since The Shadow had that same ability to appear and disappear before people realize it that Batman likes to use.

The radio show also had that memorable tagline: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."

But not us. We don't know what evil lurks. How could we? Even if someone told us what was in his or her heart, how would we know it was true. We have a very hard time knowing the truth about each other. I think, perhaps, I know my wife, because I have seen her unguarded in many of her best and her darkest moments, but even my own children surprise me when I see a side of them I hadn't seen before.

It's our tendency not to expect evil that fascinates me. Maybe because we don't pay enough attention to the clues that tell us that it's there, we are regularly shocked when it surfaces. Case in point: a student that I taught less than 10 years ago, who is now a teacher himself, has been arrested for allegedly forcing sex upon a 15-year-old student of his in an empty classroom at school. Now, he may prove to be innocent of the charges, and I hope that he is, but if he isn't, I could easily play the role of the dumbfuck neighbor who could stand in front of a microphone and a TV camera and state that "he was a nice guy" and "everybody liked him" and even point to various activities and awards that seemed to prove what a solid citizen he was. Maybe he was. Even when I saw the photos, one a mug shot, one of him leaving the detention facility, I remembered him fondly as a good student whom I had enjoyed teaching.

When we hear something like this, our minds immediately rush back to the past, trying to revisit what we know, trying to make some connections based on this new "evidence." What did I miss? What did he write in a paper? The police do the same thing in the present; they have his school-issued laptop computer, a mere machine which more and more is expected to reveal a man's soul.

Back when I lived on campus, we enjoyed a long streak of years through the 80's and into the 90's where our campus community seemed like the idyllic, perfect society. Nobody got divorced. Nobody had health problems. The children played happily together. We used to talk about it. We used to say that it was a special community that, for whatever reason, did not reflect the trends represented in the greater society.

But, of course, we were wrong. We simply weren't paying attention. A teacher had an affair with a student. A teacher tried to have an affair with another teacher's wife, but was rebuffed. Two administrators were sent off for alcohol treatment. A student committed suicide; another student bought the assault rifle he did it with. We knew these things, some more than others, but however that larger society crept in (the only two divorces came to outsiders who weren't there long enough to fit the ethos), we chose not to include its influences in the paradigm, because we wanted to be a unique place and we had enough evidence to see ourselves that way.

Within my more immediate friend group at that time, we developed a kind of half-serious notion that we were watching out for each other, helping each other to stay on the path. We had been to a couple of early morning men's prayer breakfasts featuring Tony Campolo, and during his long public prayer, he would make reference to guys in the room that he knew were "making phone calls across town." That became our mock mantra, as we would tease each other about making calls across town, but in a way which validated us for not doing that. We even believed, I think, that if one of us found himself in a situation where he was about to stray he would remember the line and our group and not act.

But that's not how humans work. Lust is stronger than a prayer breakfast. The need for power trumps friendship. Vows, even if not broken, bend pretty easily and quite far. Lies surround and protect each other like Russian nesting babushka dolls.

The tendency is to point to the evil that is all around and within and to claim that its presence represents the true and dark soul of humanity. I disagree. I think it is our ability to refresh our perspectives so that we aren't constantly dwelling on how easily those around us fall (not us! not us!) that better captures the essence of the human soul. And, no this does not reduce to some argument that "ignorance is bliss."

Instead, the bliss comes from not anticipating evil in those we know. Maybe the student's computer really is broken and that's why he doesn't have his paper. Maybe the gossip isn't malicious; maybe it's being spread out of concern by someone who doesn't know what else to do. Maybe your motives aren't so base after all.

Our capacity to do evil is a given. When evil comes, yes, we will have to confront it. But as Young Goodman Brown discovers in the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story of the same name, the man who seeks out evil does so at his own peril, because he will see it on the face of everyone he knows. Wouldn't you rather think the best of those you know and love than to send them through the airport security scan of your mind? Because if you want to undertake the search, you will find something. Not for me. I'll leave that to The Shadow.


Billy said...

While the connection is tenuous and debatable, I couldn't help but think about Garland's novel The Beach when reading your description of our "community." Maybe part of the reason so many of us, myself included, hate seeing the numbers continue to grow is the very same reason Sal hates seeing more people: the more variables you throw into the mix, the harder to hold onto our carefully-crafted illusions of joy and peace.

My struggle is on the other side of this most recent alumnus/sex scandal. I wonder if, once awful accusations are made, we find it all too easy to believe the worst about even people we know and care about. Yeah... I remember that kid. Can't say I saw this coming, but I can't say it completely surprises me either, now that I think back on it...

Jason said...

Expanding on Billy's comment, there was a teacher where I am who had a child pornography file found on his work computer recently. Boy oh boy did my mind (and everyone else in contact with this person) go nuts with the old "I can't say I saw it coming, but now that I think back on it." What is even worse, in this case, is that he just had his first child recently. The situation still plays with my head at times.

In my personal life, I try to see the best in people, even if I know that approach is somewhat naive, but I am really guarded when it comes to being close to somebody. I think in business, I tend to see both sides a bit more. Don't know what that says about me though:)

jed said...

sounds like you've already undertaken that search to some degree....