As leaders struggle for the rights to our collective soul, a near constant campaign is underway to define the world in terms of good and evil. A mostly unengaged populace is left in a media blur of politicians attempting to sway an emotional battle and religious leaders trying to capture a spiritual one. Everyone is calling for our support. These are international times and we have to rethink our old judgments with the awareness that we are part of a world community, not a tribal faction. In the end however, the question of good and evil is an intensely personal one, to which we each must find our own answers.
More than ‘good and evil’ I tend to view action in terms of ‘helpful and hurtful,’ but even that is colored by a strong tint of, ‘do what you want but be ready to suffer the consequences.’ The deeper question is what actions bring us closer to, and which takes us further away from, living in harmony. To be sure, we could talk about obvious evils such as rape and murder but I’m more interested in talking about the choices that each one of us makes on a daily basis.
Why do we choose things in our life that we know will not lead to harmony? The very fact that I have a blog tells me that I am more interested in expanding my ego than spiritual progression. My answer is that I think we’re bored. Every person knows that relationships lead to a lot of pain; having to sacrifice our own personal needs for those of the other. Even while being completely unwilling to make those sacrifices, we jump wholeheartedly into the search for a partner because we’re bored. Simply knowing that something will lead to pain is not enough, as the pain is much more interesting to us than the feeling of emptiness or being alone.
Learning how to live with other people and learning how to be good to ourselves is kind of like going on a diet. At first we feel that we can’t live without comfort foods. We need that coffee and donuts in the morning because that makes us happy. Coffee and donuts become something that we are living for. And when we first decide that we are going to eat healthily, it is pure torture and nothing else.
We don’t notice the positive benefits right away. At first we feel that we are missing out on every good thing that the world has to offer. Who wants to diet if it means not living? But then, as our body adjusts to the new restrictions, it finds that it has energy it never knew it had. We lose the weight that we thought was a part of us forever and it gives us a new confidence and empowerment. Similarly, being good to others eventually transforms both our own world and makes a difference in the lives of those around us. Nothing is more heartwarming than the smile that we’ve brought to another’s face.
But virtuous qualities don’t always come down to kindness vs. anger as there is a time and place for everything. Aristotle told us that, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Maybe it is not in everyone’s power because it is not in everyone’s consciousness. Perhaps the idea of right conduct is something that we as individuals don’t meditate on enough.
Goodness comes from acting in harmony with the world, but more than kindness, harmony is a result of selflessness. With just a minimum of self-reflection it is not hard to notice when we are acting purely for our own benefit. Awareness of our own selfish behavior however, doesn’t mean that the devil on our shoulder stops keeping us warm at night. Right conduct takes strength and is an acquired habit.
In the end it takes the right motivation. We must ask ourselves, why we care to act good? Is it for religious reasons, or philosophical ones? What is the reason why feel guilty when we act in a way we consider to be bad?
Eventually we all have to learn from our own experiences, seeing for ourselves the harmonizing affects of selfless actions. Although it might be a struggle, I believe that we would all see quick benefits from any efforts made in attempting to be better people.
Note: The title for this past week’s Dungeon Prompt was Good, Evil and the Rules that You Live By. I was initially hesitant to write this article but felt that I had tortured you all with the prompt so I had better accept the challenge myself. My main objection was that the word evil is a bit strong even for my own sensibilities. There are probably better words to describe the philosophical question that I was getting at but, this being the classic dichotomy, I stuck with it.