An Incomprehensible Good
But all the golden rams came at me. They drew closer to one another as their onrush brought them closer to me, till it was a solid wall of living gold. And with terrible force their curled horns struck me and knocked me flat and their hoofs trampled me. They were not doing it in anger. They rushed over me in their joy—perhaps they did not see me—certainly I was nothing in their minds. I understood it well. They butted and trampled me because their gladness led them on; the Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely for being what it is. We call it the wrath of the gods; as if the great cataract in Phars were angry with every fly it sweeps down in its green thunder.
Yet they did not kill me.
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces1
The run-up to Election Day is a fitting crescendo for the end of October, a month that celebrates our greatest fears—both real and imagined. This article publishes Wednesday morning, but I write it on Friday. Between these two points in time lies the most contentious, vulgar, and controversy-fraught presidential election in living memory. The odds are high that Hillary Clinton will have unambiguously swept the electoral college by the time you read this. I cannot predict how Donald Trump and his faction will respond. I hope Wednesday morning will be anticlimactic and not at all newsworthy. I hope none of you are reading this from a fallout shelter. Or a gulag.
In any case, the ultimate fears of some group or another have come true: an “evil” candidate has won the White House. A spooky sequel to Halloween, indeed.
Not to lapse into the vanity of relativity, but evil can be a wishy-washy term. It can mean anything from “policies or peoples I disagree with” to “supernatural policies or persons I disagree with.” Both the nitty gritty of healthcare reform legislation and an invisible spirit throwing children’s toys about a haunted house are called evil. The commonality is that we often cannot understand why the evil agent is performing said evil; even when the motives for evil are stated, they seem to be incomprehensible. On an elementary level, the mind can grapple with concepts like greed, lust, hatred, and so on. What might possess an evil agent to put those concepts into actions that tend towards our destruction, however, eludes us. It is frightening to even try to conceive of the mindset.
Good, on the other hand, is easy to understand. It is orderly, logical, and does not doubt us. Good, after all, is us. That ancient sophist, Thrasymachus, declared that “Justice is the advantage of the stronger.” Similarly, good is simply that which supports and enables our ultimate vision for ourselves and others. We can never be on the wrong side of good, because good, like an obedient dog, is at our heel wherever we go.
I propose that in reality, the script is flipped. We have these ideas the wrong way around. It is good that is incomprehensible, and frighteningly so. Whenever we meet it, true good seems bent on destroying us. It is evil that clings to our every thought and action like an unshakeable shadow, shifting its shape in mocking pantomime.
Good is thought to be grandfatherly. It is smiling kindly. There is always a sweet in its pocket to cheer us up. This kind of good does not wish to see us change in a way we would rather not. It is always supportive of us, even if it disagrees with our choices. This good does not hesitate to tell us to follow our dreams or desires.
Evil in this same school of thought is precisely the opposite. It brings pain and discomfort. It demands we walk down roads that frighten us. It drives us from our safe harbors into dark and unknown woods, seemingly for no reason other than its own pleasure. It wants us to become something we’d rather not. It demands we relinquish that which is most dear to us. Perhaps most terrible of all, this evil is undemocratic; the self is not given a vote.
Spoken in such abstract terms, these conceptions of good and evil are accurate to the spirit of our age, though perhaps somewhat childish. Therein in lies the key, however; they are childish. A young child’s orientation in the universe is entirely inwards. Good is what makes him happy. Evil is that which makes him miserable. My own child harbors a fundamental and inexorable urge to stick her finger in an electric socket. When I tell her “No!” and sweep her away, she becomes furious. I am a villain who denies her desires. For a moment, I am a devil.
I recall such moments from my own childhood. I once lied and said I needed new shoes for school when my eyes fell across a pair of Super Mario sneakers on a display table in the mall. Upon returning home it was discovered that I already had another pair of shoes for school. The ill-gotten shoes were confiscated, and I raged and spat curses as Super Mario was carried away. For many years, I held this to be one of the most vile injustices ever done, and I could not comprehend the motivations behind it. When I grew older, I understood the proper scope of things.
I believe the gulf between a rational adult’s understanding of good and the nature of true good is as wide as the gulf between parent and child. True good, that is, divine good, is unfathomably other. It is so different from our personal inclinations that when we encounter good, it shocks, frightens, and shames us. We would rather it go away. When true good grabs ahold of us, we recoil. It butts and tramples us to the ground and we are helpless to stop it. True good seems not to hear our pleas, and it seems to have no intention to stop its work on us. We call it wicked out of spite, even if some small part of us knows deep down the reality of what is happening.
As time goes on, and we grow more accustomed to true good knocking us about for its own incomprehensible pleasure, we, like a child growing to adulthood, begin to understand what is happening. We look back to discover the terrifying demands of true good were to shape us into something better. The part of us true good destroyed was wretchedness that would have destroyed us and those around us. True good put a knife to our flesh to cut away tumors. It took a sledgehammer to the walls in our soul that true evil told us to erect, and good did so to expand our room to love that which is good. We begin to realize why it took away the shoes.
Halloween and the election are over, but we will likely hear much talk about good and evil from friends, families, and strangers as the dust settles. It would behoove us to take caution in these conversations; speaking the name of true good too loudly might summon its presence, and there are none of us who could withstand its terrible might.
1. Lewis, C. S., Till We Have Faces. (Harcourt. Orlando, 1956.) 284. Emphasis mine.
Photo by Timitrius at Flickr Creative Commons.