Anger, blame, and the myth of evil

I used to have this recurring nightmare, like a monster nightmare, except the “monster” was really a gigantic King Kong sized human baby, hungry, in need of a diaper change, romping through city streets causing havoc. Think of how loud a three month-old baby’s wailing can be, and then imagine it coming from a baby that is over eighty feet tall, on its hands and knees. I think it would be a Godzilla kind of noise. So this baby, in my dreams it was always in a foul mood, due to its hunger and soiled diapers and who knows what else, and it is just wreaking havoc on the city streets, picking up cars and chucking them, punching in walls, pounding the earth and screaming, spitting up, drooling everywhere… You get the picture. It occurred to me recently that my recurring nightmare may not have been an unconscious manifestation of my irrational fears of all babies, but instead a manifestation of my very rational fear of a great big baby destroying America and the planet, piece by piece, and of me having no real power to stop it. I think there are forms of mental illness akin to an adult responding to criticism and unfavorable situations as an infant does, with frustration, tantrum and unrestrained retribution. “I HATE you!!!” an angry youngster sometimes says to people or things making them unhappy, just before he or she picks up something sharp and throws it at you.

Nobody ever accuses babies of being evil, even when they cause havoc. They throw things, make piercing, grating noises, they throw up a lot, and have diarrhea at inconvenient times, but it is difficult to blame them for that behavior. Even if they cause injury to others, or just great annoyance, we put babies in a strict category of total innocence. We don’t yell at babies, and we don’t punish them. Babies endure absolutely miserable emotional trauma, we know this to be true from their death defying screams. Any time trauma is so significant it results in a massive and excruciatingly loud emotional breakdown, we know there is some sort of imbalance happening. Be it a nutritional imbalance, a chemical imbalance, a lack of sleep, or a lack of love, emotional breakdown is often the result if those imbalances go unchecked. Emotional breakdown sometimes involves blame, and a tantrum can be directed at the nearest, most convenient victim.

I know this isn’t a very popular view, but I don’t believe in evil, and never have. For there to be evil, there needs to be some sort of source of evil, or a generator of evil, and I don’t think that really exists. I have never seen evidence of it, anyway. I think what comes across as evil behavior can be explained by other factors. For example, that playground bully most of us had an experience with one time or another during our childhoods, that guy always seemed like the manifestation of pure evil. He liked to see other kids suffer. He laughed at your suffering and embarrassment. He enjoyed making other people cry. But as adults, we now know that guy wasn’t really evil. We now know he had trouble at home, maybe alcoholism in the family, or maybe he had a poverty stricken home life. Maybe he had psychological issues due to early childhood injury, or maybe he had a physical condition that affected his behavior. After all, he was a child, and we don’t think of children as being evil. Children are innocent creatures who unfortunately sometimes suffer afflictions and adversity they do not know how to deal with. So they act out.

Adults can come unhinged too, and say and do horrendous things. We generally don’t give them much slack when this happens, but we know that adults also deal with chemical imbalances and environmental factors that they are not equipped to keep under control or manage. Afflictions and adversity can be so severe as to take a terrible toll on the human mind and body, whether it comes from difficult relationships, financial upheaval, tragedy, addiction, or other factors beyond our control.

Problems crop up in our lives all the time, and really are essential to keep us going. We are natural born problem solvers. Solving various types of problems becomes invigorating to us over time. Most of us get paid to solve problems of one sort or another. When we solve problems, we are rewarded by feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. Sometimes there are also monetary rewards, and additional praise from others. Problems are crucial to our wellbeing.

When our problems become especially problematic is when they cannot be solved, or when there are no problems to solve. Either situation presents an imbalance. For adults, rewards are postponed because we can’t solve the problem, or the rewards are postponed because there are no problems to solve. These are the situations that make people do things and say things that upset others.

Evil is sometimes described as actions that are done for the benefit of one’s self with the full knowledge that others will suffer as a result. If we really believed this, capitalism would be illegal. In other words, in our culture we accept that one person may benefit him or herself while causing others to suffer every day. Otherwise, all prices would be fair, all products would be of reasonable quality, and everybody would share equal resources. We reject the idea of evil with our own collective philosophy of economy. In fact, one could argue we actually reward the behavior of those who benefit themselves while causing others to suffer through elevated social status and praise.

Let’s consider the behavior of someone who takes much more than he deserves, for example, a hoarder of wealth. In America, we have lots of resources. Some people for a variety of reasons do not get enough to thrive on, while others get more than enough. Sometimes people take way, way, way more than they need in terms of resources, and stockpile it all. Indeed, acquiring these resources is a result of clever problem solving, the kind of problem solving we live for. But some have found a way to acquire way, way, way beyond the resources they, or any of their loved ones, need for comfort and health. Where does that come from? Is that evil?

I would say it is more of a sickness, or an imbalance, or both. The more resources one acquires, the more comfortable and healthy one ought to be. What is it that creates a drive to acquire more resources than one needs, and then continue to acquire even more? What makes one become addicted to acquiring things one does not need?

Evil seems as good an explanation for this behavior as any. But let’s remember that all adults were babies once, and babies just aren’t evil. Something happened along the way to create that false need for hoarded capital.

If a baby exhibits strange physical or behavioral symptoms, we take that baby to the doctor. There is something wrong, and an exorcist is not the answer. If there is an affliction at play here, this baby needs help.

With adults, we can safely assume something is also at play. Adults have more life experiences that could lead to addiction, mental illness, or other afflictions, so we have more types of doctors, therapies and remedies to help us. We are natural problem solvers, though, so anything that is written off as evil, I say, we can handle. To assume something or someone is “evil” is to assume there is some unknown source of epic badness producing that condition and there is nothing that can be done. I subscribe to the problem solving approach. It may take a lot of different perspectives and a lot of different voices to chime in in order to get to the bottom of it, but any seemingly evil entity is a human being at its core. He or she might require medical attention, or love and support, or both. But we know from our experiences with babies and children that yelling and blaming will not solve the problem, and will likely just increase the symptoms. If things have gotten out of control, it may be best to remove all the sharp objects and seek help from professionals.

The monsters (and the monstrous babies) that appear in our nightmares can be dealt with. Somewhere, there is a concrete, scientific, underlying condition that resulted in their appearance. We must remember that they are manifestations of those conditions, and not really monsters from the gates of hell. They are just reminders that we have some problems that need solving. Luckily, our species likes to solve problems through questioning, innovation, persistence, collaboration, art, and even dissent.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I am a math strategist in RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal and Durham, Maine), and have been teaching for ten years. These days I help oversee the math curriculum in my district and I coach and support teachers (mostly K-6) in their math instruction. My interests in education extend far beyond math, though.. I have been a passionate writer and musician since I was a young child. I have a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a certificate in math leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife and dog in Bowdoinham.