Charles Eisenstein: The Problem with Evil.

By Charles Eisenstein.

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Understanding the Root of all Evil

When we confront something we regard as “evil,” it poses a threat to the self-preservation of ego. We are so busy preserving our existence in the face of this threat that we cannot see the thing clearly at all. — Chögyam Trungpa
Sometimes in Q&A sessions or internet comments, I am confronted with the accusation that I ignore “the dark side of human nature.” I would like to unpack that statement. What is the dark side of human nature? It certainly means more than “Sometimes people do some pretty awful things,” because obviously if it wasn’t someone’s fault or intention to cause harm, that is not very dark. Besides, anyone who has read my work knows that I am well aware of the horrible things we humans have done to each other and the planet. No, when we speak of the dark side of human nature we are making a dispositionist claim: that we do bad things because there is bad within us. We bear within us evil, malice, selfishness, greed, brutality, cruelty, violence, hate, and callousness.
On the one hand, this is trivially true: all of these are parts of the human experience. Even if circumstances bring them out, they must be there to be brought out in the first place. But if it were only that, then the situationist response would be sufficient: change the circumstances that elicit evil. No easy task, this: these “circumstances” include the whole edifice of our civilization all the way down to its foundational mythology of Separation and Ascent. Yet still, a more beautiful world is still possible in principle.
I am not ignorant of the worst that has happened, and still is happening, in this world. I know what people are talking about when they refer to institutional and personal evil. What else is it when international creditors extract interest payments from countries where children go hungry? What else is it when women in Congo are raped with bayonets? What is it when toddlers are sent to the gallows? What is it when babies are raped on child pornography webcams? What is it when virgin forests are leveled for profit? What is it when cities are flattened by atomic bombs essentially for demonstration purposes? The brutality and hypocrisy on this planet know no limit. The worst things you can imagine one human being doing to another, have been done. If not because of evil, then why?
Any worldview that does not acknowledge the reality of these things will eventually fail us as a source of optimism, faith, and courage. Born into a world where these things happen, we all carry their imprint. Better be aware of it. For me, it is important to sometimes read about the genocide du jour, to look at photographs of tar sands excavation, to read about the worldwide decline in forests, and to touch on the individual stories of people affected by war, the prison industry, and so forth. Only then, seeing the very worst, can my optimism be authentic. I would like to point to a different invitation that the horrifying stories offer. It is to vow, “I will do anything in my power to create a world in which this no longer happens.” Integrating such stories into my awareness inoculates me against the still-dominant Story of the World in which things are basically as they should be.

Evil is a Response to the Perception of Separation

Perhaps what we see as the evil in human nature is a conditional response to circumstances so ubiquitous, and so ancient in their origin, that we cannot see them as conditional. The “othering” that allows us to harm, and the stories that contain that othering, are present to some extent even among the indigenous, and form the warp and woof of modern society. We do not really know what human nature would be in an environment embodying the Story of Inter-being. We do not know what it would be like to grow up in a society that affirmed our connectedness and cultivated its associated perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. We do not know what the experience of life would be if we never learned self-rejection and judgment. We do not know how we would respond to conditions of abundance rather than scarcity. In Sacred Economics I wrote, “Greed is a response to the perception of scarcity.” (If everyone has plenty and the society lives in a sharing economy that rewards generosity, then greed is senseless.) Maybe we can expand that to say, “Evil is a response to the perception of separation.”
Separation creates evil 
 Evil is a response to the perception of separation.

At a retreat one time, I asked the participants to walk around as separate selves. They were to see the sun as a mere ball of fusing hydrogen, the trees as just woody tissue; they were to hear the birdsongs as genetically programmed mating calls and territorial markers. They were to see each other as grasping, selfish egos, and the world as a competitive arena. And they were reminded that the clock was ticking. When we debriefed afterward, one of the participants said, “I just started feeling angry. I wanted to hit someone, kill something.”
Those perceptions of separation I told people to take on—those are the air we breathe as members of modern society. They are among the implicit beliefs of our culture. No wonder we are so angry. No wonder we are so violent. Immersed in such a world, who wouldn’t be?
None of this is to deny the fact that there are an awful lot of dangerous people out there, people who are so deeply conditioned to Separation that it would take a miracle to change them. Such miracles happen sometimes, but I don’t recommend relying on them in every situation. Again, if an armed intruder were threatening my children, I would probably use force to stop him, whether or not I understood that his actions came from whatever childhood trauma he had experienced. The moment of danger might not be the time to heal such trauma.
On the other hand, it might. I have found—and others have discovered in situations far more extreme than I’ve experienced—that acting from the understanding of oneness rather than from fear can have amazing effects in tense situations. Hostility begets hostility and trust begets trust. I cannot say it “works” every time, but disrupting the usual script at least allows the possibility of a different outcome. Responding to someone without fear telegraphs to them, “You are not dangerous. I know you are a good person.” It creates a new script for them to step into. They may decline that role, but at least the possibility is there.

Response Determines Outcome

Not too long ago, my teenage son sold an item of his for $75 to another kid in the neighborhood. The kid met him to get the item, but instead of paying Jimi the money, he grabbed it and ran off. Jimi gave chase but couldn’t catch him. Another teenager, a local gang member, saw the scene and asked why Jimi was chasing him. Jimi told him, whereupon the other teen pulled out a gun and said, “I’ll help you take care of it. I know where he lives.” Jimi said, “I’ll get back to you on that.” That evening, he told me the story and asked, “What do you think I should do, Dad?”
I thought about it for a minute and said, “Well, you are in the position of strength here and could probably get your money back by force. But if you go with the gun-wielding kid to visit the thief and get your item or money, you know how the story unfolds. The kid will want revenge, either on you or, more likely, someone weak. The cycle of violence will continue. Instead of that, why not transform the situation? You could send the gunman a text, saying, ‘You know, if he really wants the item that much, tell him to take it as my gift. Really. It’s just a thing.’” I explained further to Jimi that this approach wouldn’t work if he didn’t already have the upper hand, because then it would be seen as capitulation. But as things stood, such a message would be totally out of the ordinary.
Jimi told me he’d think about it. He didn’t do as I suggested, but let me tell you what happened. Later that week Jimi arranged a meeting with the thief. He went accompanied by his friend M., a martial arts expert. The thief brought two of his friends along as well. He said he really wanted the item and didn’t want to pay for it. His two friends started egging him and Jimi on, suggesting that they fight for it. Jimi (who is six-feet-two and has also studied martial arts) said, “Forget it, I’m not going to fight you for this petty material object. You keep it. I don’t want your money.”
How will you react? 
 We have the power to influence an outcome by how we react to a situation.

The thief was taken aback. Then he said, “You know, that doesn’t feel right. I shouldn’t have taken it like that. Let me give you some money. How about $50? That’s all I can afford.”
Whereas each had held the other in a story of enmity, now there was humanity.

Finding Humanity in Every Situation

Pancho Ramos Stierle runs a peace house on the border between two gang territories in what is considered one of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland, California. People tell me that more than once, local individuals have entered the house with the intention to rob or kill, only to be converted into peace workers instead.
Years ago, Pancho was involved in a protest at UC Berkeley, where he was a PhD student in astrophysics. He was one of a group of students publicly fasting to protest the university’s involvement with nuclear weapons development. After nine days, the university got tired of it and had the police come and make an example of the group of hunger strikers. Police officers broke the human chain the protesters had made by interlocking their arms, and one officer lifted the slight Pancho into the air, slammed him onto the concrete, and brutally handcuffed him.
At this point, most of us would probably fall into the story and the habits of separation. We might respond with hatred, sarcasm, judgment. Lacking the physical force to overcome the police, we might try to publicly humiliate them instead. If it were me, I imagine, my lifelong indignation at the injustices of this world would be projected onto this police officer. Finally, someone to blame and to hate. The worse his persecution of me, the more gratified I would feel, the more a martyr, innocent, blameless. It feels kind of good, doesn’t it, to have someone inhuman to hate without qualification. One feels absolved. And, by personifying evil, the problems of the world appear much simpler—just get rid of those awful people.
Pancho responded differently. He looked the officer in the eye and said, with love and with no attempt to make him feel guilty, “Brother, I forgive you. I am not doing this for me, I am not doing this for you. I am doing it for your children and the children of your children.” The officer was momentarily befuddled. Then Pancho asked his first name and said, “Brother, let me guess, you must like Mexican food.” [Awkward pause.] “Yes.” “Well, I know this place in San Francisco that has the best carnitas and fajitas and quesadillas, and I tell you what, when I get done with this and you get done with this, I’d like to break my fast with you. What do you say?”
Amazingly, the officer accepted the invitation. How could he not? He loosened Pancho’s handcuffs and those of the other protesters. The power of Pancho’s action came because he was standing in a different story, and standing there so firmly that he held the space of that story for other people such as the policeman to step into as well.

Never Underestimate Your Enemy

The Tao Te Ching says:
There is no greater misfortune than underestimating your enemy. Underestimating your enemy means thinking that he is evil. Thus you destroy your three treasures and become an enemy yourself. (Verse 69, Mitchell translation).
The stories of Pancho and my son illustrate this. I shudder to think of the misfortune that could have resulted from “underestimating” the enemy. Even if the policeman had been humiliated or punished, even if the thief had been crushed, the real “enemy” would have flourished. The level of hate would not have diminished in this world.
I want to be absolutely clear that for words like Pancho’s to work, they must be absolutely authentic. If you say them and don’t mean them, if you are actually saying them with the goal of showing your persecutor up as all the more villainous for having spurned your nonviolent loving-kindness, then he will probably oblige by enacting that villainy. People, especially police officers, know when they are being manipulated, and they don’t like it. The purpose of responding nonviolently isn’t to show what a good person you are. It isn’t even to be a good person. It comes, rather, from a simple understanding of the truth. Pancho meant what he said. He knew that the police officer didn’t really want to do this. He looked at him with the unshakable knowledge, “This isn’t who you really are. Your soul is too beautiful to be doing this.”
Pancho Ramos Stierle 
Pancho Ramos Stierle demonstrates peace at an Occupy Oakland encampment.

I find that witnessing or reading about incidents like this strengthens my own standing in the Story of Interbeing. Perhaps, knowing Pancho’s story, when I am in a situation that challenges my stand in the new story, I will be able to hold it more firmly too. Certainly, I encounter such challenges every day. I haven’t been beaten by police, but every day I see people doing things that invite me to “other” them, to demonize them, and to seek to punish or manipulate them. Sometimes it seems as if entire newspapers are designed to bring the reader into that mindset. They invite us into a world of inexcusable, awful people, and predispose us to act accordingly in our social relationships.
The best victory, says Sun Tzu, is the one in which the losers don’t realize they have lost. In the old story, we overcome evil and leave our enemies in the dust, wailing and gnashing their teeth. No more. Everyone is coming along for this ride. In the new story, we understand that everyone left behind impoverishes the destination. We see each human being as the possessor of a unique lens upon the world. We wonder, “What truth has this man been able to see from his perspective, that is invisible from mine?” We know that there must be something; that indeed, each of us occupies a different place in the matrix of all being, precisely in order to contribute a unique experience to our evolving totality.
I do not know if Pancho’s encounter with the policeman directly changed that man’s life. I do know that each experience of love, along with each experience of hate, is written into our inner situation. Each experience of love nudges us toward the Story of Interbeing, because it only fits into that story and defies the logic of Separation.

A Cover for the Wound of Separation

I think these stories make it clear that acting from interbeing does not equate to being a doormat, being passive, or allowing violence to happen. It certainly isn’t the same as ignoring what goes on in the world. Sometimes I get criticisms along the lines of “Charles, don’t you understand? It’s all good. We’re all one. All these ‘bad’ things are happening for our growth. Let’s focus on our blessings and steer clear of negativity. You criticize technology, but look—the internet allows me to communicate with my son in China. Everything is unfolding perfectly.” I disagree with this viewpoint, or rather, I think it represents a partial understanding of a metaphysical principle. Donning rose-colored lenses in willful ignorance of the hurting and ugliness of the world is like paving over a toxic waste dump and hoping it goes away. On a certain level, it is true that “It’s all good”—but that includes our perception that something is terribly wrong. It is that perception, and the fire it kindles within us to create a more beautiful world, that makes “It’s all good” come true. The perfection of the unfolding encompasses the imperfection. Resisting “negativity” is itself a form of negativity, in that it affirms that doubt, fear, etc., are indeed negative. But they have an important role, just like everything else. To deny that, to deny our fear and pain, would indeed be to ignore the dark side. Acting from inter-being doesn’t deny a single fact or experience presented us. It does require shedding our customary interpretation of those experiences. That can be difficult, because those interpretations are not only culturally reinforced in ways both subtle and powerful, they are also a kind of cover for the deep wounds of Separation that most of us carry.
Let me say that again. Hate and the Story of Evil are a cover for the wound of Separation. We need to peel away that cover and give that wound attention, so that it can heal. Otherwise, we will continue to act from Separation ourselves, and we will create more of it, unwittingly, through all we do.
Even if the reader is not convinced that there is no such thing as elemental, essential evil, it should at least be clear that most of the time, what we ascribe to evil actually comes from situation. Even if the reader still thinks there is a “discontinuity that divides the ordinary flawed human from the truly evil,” it is clear that we often categorize the former as the latter. That is extremely important, because whereas evil can be overcome only by superior force, anything else can be changed by changing the situation, the totality of the inner and outer circumstances. In large part, these circumstances consist of layer upon layer of story, going all the way down to our personal and cultural Story of Self.
This is the level we must work at if we are to create a different kind of society. We must become the storytellers of a new world. We tell the story not only with words, but with the actions that spring from that story. Each such action shows all who witness it that there is another world out there, another way of seeing and being, and that you are not crazy for thinking it is there.
kindness invites kindness 
 Every act of kindness is an invitation into kindness.

Every act of generosity is an invitation into generosity. Every act of courage is an invitation into courage. Every act of selflessness is an invitation into selflessness. Every act of healing is an invitation into healing. Human beings have been committing horrors for thousands of years in the name of conquering evil. The identity of evil keeps changing—The Turks! The Infidels! The bankers! The French! The Jews! The bourgeoisie! The terrorists!—but that mindset remains the same. As does the solution: force. As does the result: more evil. Must we forever battle the image of our own delusion? We see the results all over our scarred planet. A saying goes, “The greatest tool of the Devil is the belief that there is no Devil.” Perhaps the opposite is true: “The greatest tool of Evil is the idea there is such a thing as Evil.”
Take a while to appreciate the subtlety of that paradox. It does not say, “Evil does not exist.” It is essentially saying that evil is a story. Does that mean it isn’t real? No. Evil is as real as a poacher stripping the tusks from an elephant, Monsanto marketing GMO seeds to Indian peasants, the government ordering drone strikes on funeral processions. These are the tip of the iceberg, tiny tremors amid the convulsions wracking our planet.

Evil is a Story

Evil is real—no less real than any other story. What are some other stories? America is a story, money is a story, even the self is a story. What could be more real than your self? Yet even the self can be realized as an illusory construct when, through grace or practice, we are freed from its story. The point is not that we should treat evil as unreal. It is that we must address it on the level of story rather than accept its own invisible premises and logic. If we do the latter, we become its creature. If we address it on the level of story, then we win without defeating.
Again, I am not saying there is never a time to fight. All things have their place in this world: the buck struggles against the wolf, and sometimes he gets away. It is just that, because of our ideology, we apply the mentality of fighting, struggling, and warfare far beyond its proper domain. I will not attempt to delineate principles that distinguish when fighting is “justified”; to decide on principle is part of the old story.
Humanity has been on a journey of Separation for thousands of years, and every crevice of that territory must be explored. The perpetrators and the victims of all we call evil have explored the furthest reaches of Separation. One might even define evil as separation: the total othering of a person, a nation, or nature, as well as the natural consequence of being cast into an alien universe separate from oneself. Recall the workshop exercise: “I wanted to kill something.” Significant it is that the label “evil” is itself a profound form of othering. That is another way to see that the concept of evil is part and parcel of the phenomenon of evil.
Thankfully, having explored the extremities of the territory of Separation, we now have the possibility of embarking on the return journey. If evil is part of your Story of the World, either through direct experience or as a fundamental ontological category, you might want to explore how that story serves you and what is the hurting that draws you to it. Because again, evidence and logic will not resolve whether evil is real. I have made extensive arguments drawing from situationist psychology, from psychopathy, from metaphysics, and from numerous anecdotes, but one could probably rebut each point, and I could rebut the rebuttals ad infinitum. How will you choose your story? How will you influence how others choose theirs?
Let us hold out for no less a miracle planetwide. Let us accept the invitation that it offers us into a larger sense of the possible.

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