I’m not sure how we got to be talking about human evil, but when we somehow did a few weeks ago, my mom told me about a book that she read years ago on the topic: The People of the Lie, by Scott Peck. Barely remembering its details, my mom hesitated to recommend the book, but she did tell me that she read it twice. That was enough of a recommendation. I requested a copy from the library.
Two weeks later, I’ve finished it, and I also feel compelled to reread it. Through vivid case studies from his psychiatric clinic and thoughtful analysis, Peck has crafted an absorbing book that probes the question of human evil. What is it? How is it perpetuated? How is it thwarted? Who does it impact?
Part of what captured me about the book was the dedication Peck had to addressing and exploring a topic from which many people steer clear. I doubt that I am alone when I say that the word “evil” itself makes me wince. I would never describe a person, or even an action, as evil. Sure, people do unkind things and make hurtful decisions….but does that make them evil? I don’t know. Understanding that we are all so influenced by our parents, our circumstances, our advantages and our disadvantages, I am inclined against labeling an individual with such a morally pejorative word. And yet, I would tell you that I believe evil exists. Is there another way to explain the existence of hate crimes, genocides and child abuse?
This is perhaps why I so appreciated that Peck defined evil, and that he actually defines it quite “benignly.” He writes that evil is “that force, resting inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness” (43). If evil is what seeks to kill life, we all have some evil in us. Putting a person down kills their liveliness, as does giving them the silent treatment or raising my temper at them if I am in a bad mood. I’ve done these things before. I’ve also done plenty of things that promote liveliness — offering a compassionate and listening ear, or forgiving someone when they have hurt me. In other words, I — and everyone, for that matter — am a combination of good and of evil.
And I think that I like this idea because it highlights the fact that I have a choice in the kind of life I want to lead. In any given moment, I have options in how I act. Do I flick off the person who cut me off in traffic, or do I smile and wave to signify that it didn’t mater? Do I glare at my husband when he spills coffee on the floor, or do I laugh and wipe it up because really, it is no big deal? Do I tell the waitress that she is doing a great job, or do I withhold the compliment? Do I kill liveliness, or to a promote liveliness?
By Peck’s definition, good and evil exist, not just abstractly, but within me. Daily, I am confronted with numerous choices that involve deciding whether to promote or kill liveliness. The old saying, “You are what you eat” translates here to “You are what you choose.” Our daily choices — the mundane ones as well as the major ones — become our habits, and our habits become our lives.
Peck raised all of these ideas for me, and by doing so, he inspired me to make choices that promote life and liveliness. In this way, the book was more than an interesting read; it was inspiring and influential. I can see why my mom read it twice, and I would highly recommend it.
Readers, what do you think? Does Peck’s definition of evil resonate with you? Do we become more or less evil or good because of our daily choices?