Sometimes I think I sound like a wimp in political arguments. I’m forever talking about the mistakes and frailties of my own side, instead of slamming full speed into the weakness of my political opponents. Conducting an all-out assault on conservatives’ ideas and moral character would certainly feel sweet. Such a nasty-laden attack might even be effective, and yet most of the time I can’t bring myself to berserk the opposition. I’m finally beginning to figure out why.
I don’t have to stomach to call someone out on being less than saintly when I know my dark side all too well. The danger of not owning one’s own evil has been on my mind as I have been working with my recent interview with Duke University Professor Ruth Grant and reading John Bradshaw’s book, Reclaiming Virtue: How We Can Develop the Moral Intelligence to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time for the Right Reason. Grant set my thoughts in this direction by talking about how we frail humans are desperate to believe in our own goodness.
My own feeling is that everybody wants to be able to think of themselves as a good person. There’s a need for self-approval that’s very powerful in all of us. Everyone has an interest in the question of what it is to lead a good life, to be able to come to the end of your life and say not bad, I didn’t do badly. I think this is one of the biggest motivations for people to be good. It’s also the motivation for people to rationalize when they’re not good. I think there’s a powerful psychological need not to feel regret, ashamed of yourself or guilty. These are extremely painful feelings.
Bradshaw writes that the worst evil comes from people who think they contain no evil. (Emphasis added)
Accepting our most disliked, despised, rejected parts is equivalent to loving every part of ourselves. Many people find it hard to accept their most unattractive and despised parts primarily because we have been taught to accept only our polarized, righteous “good” self. Because totalistic religious beliefs set up their followers to overidentify themselves with goodness and righteousness, these believers have trouble accepting their own shadow, sin and selfishness. Paradoxically, overidentification with goodness is one of the primary causes of human evil, as it creates the fanatical polarization that sets up the opposition between us, “the good,” and them, “the bad.”
When Augustine warned, “Woe to them who speak of God,” he was naming the dangerous temptation that comes from the belief that certain religious or moral doctrine is the one truth, and that it brings its possessor a unique salvation. When such a belief is totalistic, anyone who believes differently is considered wrong, bad, unsaved, or whatever other negative term one might use to describe them.
As Bradshaw notes, owning our “undesired and unacceptable parts,” doesn’t mean condoning them.
It means that the more we are aware of them and embrace them completely as part of our selves, the less chance they will take over our lives. The more I overidentify with righteousness, the less aware I am of my own potential for evil. Whatever evil I’m willing to own and be aware of immensely reduces my chances of acting it out.
For me, this makes sense both logically and on a gut level. It’s also one of the hardest lessons to put into practice.
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