As I was sitting on my porch reading, my wife tended to her flowers. Silently the blue sky clouded up. Lightning strikes hit all round in a ten mile radius. It was so hot that the rain was evaporating as it fell. After one particularly brilliant flash and thunderous boom we both noticed that the mountain closest to us had been kindled. During the few moments it took to phone it in, the blaze was hundreds of yards wide and growing as revealed by my field glasses. It was potentially very bad for us and depended on forces over which we had no control. Whole trees exploded as they reached flash-over temperature. This was bad. The planes and copters came within ten minutes and the wind abated somewhat. This was good.
We had just spent several days attending to some bad wiring and electrical problems which were rectified by a qualified technician. In the midst of this we discovered we had been invaded by a pack-rat which was bad. We dispatched the interloper which was good. I inspected the entire underside of our trailer and fixed every possible point of ingress and inspected all the wiring located there, which was good. I noted what needed to be done and crawled out, cleaned up and went into town. I had no fire insurance which was bad and after I purchased some, I felt I had done something good. I bought and installed a coast guard fire extinguisher which was good move.
Next day I went back under the crawl and did the necessary work on the wires to render them good. I now noticed that there was a potential problem with my plumbing which was bad. All to the good sound of water bombers, helicopters drawing Bambi buckets and fire retardant planes passing overhead until dark. I watched the flames spread and shrink with the changing winds most of the night. As I write the fire is thirty hours old and not yet extinguished which is bad. I have done what could be done and am vigilant which is good.
Countless tomes have been written on the topic of good and evil. We may rest assured that countless more shall be written in the future. Philosophers, priests and laymen have struggled to make sense of these two concepts and to define these two amorphous, inadequate nouns. In addition to this we each have our own personal understandings of these opposites. To complicate things further, as we progress through life and new challenges appear, our old definitions may need to be refined from time to time.
In distant times man lived, mated, sought shelter and food and attempted to rear young in a natural setting within the context of all other forms of life. This scenario is replete with disasters, ill-luck, fear and set-backs of all kinds. I expect that our most ancient forebears spent most of their cognitive time observing, recording and transmitting to each other the natural patterns they perceived without much of what we today would call soul-searching. They did this naturally in order to make it through the following day, week, month, season and year.
This growing store of information and the ability of man to improvise and to teach new ways of coping naturally led to more security, leisure and to larger populations. The advancements in technology increase exponentially in a species that innovates, communicates and mimics. It was a relatively short journey from the making of fire to the posting of a Face Book Page. We are essentially the same creatures who suppressed our natural fear and took embers from a lightning struck tree. We put this fire to many useful purposes yet without our respectful natural fear of it we would not have survived our use of it.
It is a human ability to over-ride fear and to condition ourselves to withstand that which we are naturally frightened of and it can work in good ways as it diminishes aggression fueled by our fears. It is an ability that truly sets us in our own slot. I believe this is a good thing when self-directed for a known beneficial purpose and is used in a way that harms no others nor the self. We are all glad of that fire-bringer who was likely considered a strange until everyone saw the enormous benefits to be enjoyed through his or her conquering of that particular natural fear. It is quite another thing to be confronted with someone putting their boot through your door and shooting your family with no more concern than a dog pissing on a tree. Incredibly both unnatural abilities are arrived at via the same mechanisms. The difference lies in their use and in their authorship.
Some saw in the natural world two opposite forces at play. This is very logical, given our beginnings. Perhaps, in the cave-dwellers era, these forces were thought of simply as good and not-good. With time not-good became evil. I would conjecture that a man in a sandstorm would certainly see more evil around him than a man standing beside a crystal clear salmon stream with a spear.
Some in the past came up with the concept that all is evil on our Earth and thus its presence may be easily explained and indeed expected to the point of being taken for granted. In this belief system, people sought to renounce everything natural as they believed these things sprang from dark sources. Interestingly, this eventually led to bizarre extremes of behavior and ultimately a re-balancing by way of doctrines that allowed for one to transcend the perceived dichotomy and to engage in the previously prohibited behaviors anyway.
Some posited that all is good on our Earth and nature itself is evidence of its ubiquity. Plentiful food and shelter likely led to this way of belief over time. Depending on the geography and climate of a particular portion of the globe visited by religious man at a given time, thought systems were formulated to accommodate the differences between glacial, desert, jungle, prairie and forest environments.
It even occurred to a man that to withdraw from the struggle that is life in a natural setting one may avoid being put in a position to have to apply these labels to natural happenings. While one is not subject to the physical effects of evil one is also not enjoying the natural benefits of good. In this system the battle still ensues but is confined within the cranium.
Others have lived in the belief that once their own particular religion's scriptures have been fulfilled, all bets are off as well as all former restrictions. Usually there is not consensus in these cases and many violent periods of turmoil have resulted from these differences of interpretation. History can furnish the student many examples of the incredible capacity of people to do evil especially when convinced they are confronting it. Again and again the quite logical and natural link between the coldness of fear and the heat of aggression is played out on the stage of time.
It is extraordinary to me that mankind's long observation of any animal's behavior when cornered opposed to its behavior when in possession of the physical comfort zone peculiar to that animal when operating within the natural world at large and subject to the natural law of balance; seems not to have ever been taken to be a natural universal phenomenon, integral to all forms of animals and thus to man himself.
One definition of evil as pertains to human conduct could be stated thus: Evil is choosing to do wrong. Put another way we could say that evil is the result of the fight or flight mechanism, which is an integral part of our being, being called into play at inappropriate moments or left engaged for inappropriate durations of time within the context of the situation. This can be caused by a variety of reasons and is thus understandable, even somewhat predictable. With ever growing concentration in cities, poverty and substance abuse, many parents and their children are damaged in real ways, some while still in the womb.
The underlying switch for our adrenaline system is turned on when an animal perceives a threat or peril to itself or to its social unit, be that it's family, mate or even larger groupings. As soon as minimum safe space has been achieved, the system shuts down and behavior returns to the ordinary. I think that because humans have such a lengthy dependency period and corresponding extended vulnerability due to the massive amount of knowledge to be learned, it is rare for a human infant to make it through to adulthood with out having experienced various traumas of varying degrees of severity.
Some of this trauma may be certainly random natural happenings and some may be perpetrated by members of the child's own species and even by its own family. These individuals can and usually do have their fight or flight mechanism damaged in the sense that it no longer works as intended. These individuals may go on to harm themselves and may even harm others. While we may understand this, we may not excuse or allow certain behaviors in our midst if the larger group is to survive. It my understanding that most species of animals employ either banishment or termination to cope with this type of problem.
Much legal wrangling has ensued since before the Salem Witch Trials up to today as to an effective, just, human way to deal with this conundrum. Sadly, being human precludes our ever finding a perfect fool-proof solution in my opinion. Innocent men and women have been killed or incarcerated and many monsters have walked freely among us after having passed through our carefully constructed system of social justice.
Some of our collective responses to these increasing problems have been to drug those damaged into a state where their chemical suppression renders them harmless. The evening news will confirm that this doesn't work, the subject lives in the dark agony of being damaged and knowing it without experiencing that any cares about how they were damaged but are satisfied as long as the subject makes no messes. We learned long ago that we cannot fool mother nature yet refuse to act according to this knowledge. Basically, this is stupid and this stupidity is also part of our human heritage.
Another of our responses has been to embrace adrenaline by engaging in activities that would put any healthy animal into a panic. We fly down mountainsides on bicycles, jump off things with chutes, swim across oceans, fight in no holds barred cages and run in front of bulls. The rhetoric says that by this we are facing our fears and thus overcoming them. By this logic, it is implied that we become something more than we were prior to engaging in risky behavior. If mule deer and rabbits felt the same way, my larder would be easily filled in a few hours. When I pull my hat brim down and scan all the nature I can see I cannot find this behavior outside our species.
Our world is violent, has been violent and will remain violent. While a reader may take in this essay as a talk about a few unfortunate people, I invite you to consider these topics in a personal and in a macro view. Desensitizing our young to violence through first-person shooter games on their X-Boxes and on the paint-ball range coupled with cascading fountains of sexuality in every form of media produce a deadly mix. It will become harder over time to judge which individuals have damaged response mechanisms and which of those are fixable. Otherwise healthy people willingly subjecting their selves to activities that desensitize them to sex and to violence will have to answer for their choices before judging the bad actions of those who have been unwilling victims of sexual or physical abuse.
Both types have the same tweaked response systems that cannot be held to be normal for a healthy animal in a natural setting with adequate food, shelter and space. Humans seem to me to be the only animals that will attempt to fix that which is not broken. If you are perched on the edge of the C N Tower and balk at jumping off on a rubber cord, you're systems are working properly and you need no alterations. If peer-pressure convinces you otherwise you will be doomed to seek ever bigger jolts in order to feel temporarily satisfied.
As our numbers grow, the distinction between the innocent victims and the willfully emotionally altered will further blur and the mechanics of the herd will likely dictate a new normal. In my opinion this is definitely not to be wished for or desirable. The fact is that we are creatures that laugh, cry and sing. We are not alone in this, either. Watch a dog, cat, horse or any other mammal and you will see a full range of emotions equivalent to a human jumping for joy or curling up with a stack of B. B. King records and a pint of ice cream.
The returning soldiers of this world are and have been all that would be required for the serious student of the things we are examining to teach us that while we may be modified and tweaked, we remain human and if the tinkering is done to an extreme, there is an extreme distance to be crossed in getting back to normal balance. This same group has shown us that we have not or cannot provide a simple solution to undo that which has been done and this in turn leads to much more harm to innocent people at home.
What can we do? Strive each day to be human. Ponder what that means and follow it. There is much that can be repaired as is evident by the longevity of our species given the known traumas we have had to overcome. Don't forget those things inherent in being a human that are draw-backs, weak-points and thus are easily employed by the unwitting and by the unscrupulous to cause us to misbehave. You will laugh, cry, sing, dance, fight, scream and sometimes just scratch your head and stare at the sky. Share your stories and your knowledge with your fellows. You will easily perceive you are not alone while remaining absolutely unique. Be aware that youngsters will mimic you. Be aware that a leader and a follower are cut from the same bolt of cloth. By seeking neither you will be both by turns as required.
I stated earlier that evil is choosing to do wrong, while saying that damaged emotional systems can be the underlying cause. This would prompt the astute reader to point out that people who do evil in this situation have no choice and thus render my statement invalid. I salute your careful reading and critical reasoning. I saved the best part for last and I have an answer for you. Our species is endowed one and all with a heart. This compass will never let you down. Not ever. Because of this wonderful fact, we have survived everything and remained intact as humans.
Use the primitive survival and procreative systems as they were intended. With your heart as a guide you will always know right from wrong and have that choice. Our human hearts enable us to universalize the harms done to us by others and to personalize any harms we would potentially do to others before we do them. This serves the dual purpose of making forgiving possible, forgetting impossible so learning and caution may accumulate to protect others and approaching our pain from this angle is half the salve we need to complete our own healing. The other half of this wonderful mechanism is the check it places upon our flawed, fragile and complex nervous-emotional-hormonal systems. Its a rear-view mirror and all you have to do is look into it before you back up. The heart beats true til our final breath. Following the heart is what makes us human in my experience.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.