Surviving in the Face of Human Evil

Recently I read an article by singer Joan Baez whose influence on me as an idealistic adolescent and young woman and whose peacemaking musical career has affected me profoundly throughout my life.

Joan’s foundation, as well as my own, grounded in non –violent personal and political action, began when we were young children who were taught that non violence was ‘the way through’ and continues to remain second nature to us both.

Joan has recently “retired” from singing although in her words her most recent album attempts “to make some beauty in the face of – well – of evil, really.” When I read these words about evil I experienced a sense of terrible grief.

I have shied away from the concept of “evil” throughout my life, preferring instead to interpret the dark face of humanity in terms of human limitations.

As a naturalist whose life is inextricably tied to the forces of Nature, and whose observations have reinforced my belief that evil does not exist in the natural world, I have found continuous support watching animals and birds cooperating rather than competing (as the “man against nature” paradigm would have it). Most species, cats, wild and tame are certainly an exception, all other animals kill only for food to survive.

However, in recent years I have had to come to terms with the fact that evil does indeed exist on earth as a human construct. I have neighbors (in Maine) who enjoy bullying for the sense of power it brings them and who terrorize others with guns for “fun.” My home in the western mountains is a place where many if not all hunters kill animals for the pleasure of the “high” it brings them. Politically we are over the edge with a president who is, in my opinion, mentally ill, and the entire planet and every creature and person is at risk for survival. Starving people, emotional/sexual violence, murder, and destruction of the planet are daily occurrences comprising the “new normal” and all the marches in the world are not going to be enough to change the patriarchal structure we find ourselves living through. Breakdown is inevitable. How can I not believe have that human “evil” is real?

My ongoing question these days revolves around how to deal with the destructive culture I live in without losing my mind.

The answers have been slow in coming.

The first thing I learned was that I have had to insulate myself from the political situation I find myself in by limiting my exposure to news of any kind. I have no television and do not engage into political conversation unless it with people of like mind, and I have found that others, like me, often find it too difficult to have extended exchanges about such a hopeless situation. I also diligently limit my exposure to the information glut on the Internet. Delete, delete, delete…

Last night I spoke to someone who said, as I initially did after the last election, (knowing that my profound grief, rage and hopelessness was driving me over the edge and that I didn’t believe what I was saying) that someone has to kill the president.

( a year ago some man actually had the audacity to take the above statement out of context and tell me that I wanted to kill the president – wow – says a lot about him)

The knowledge that I am so fundamentally at odds with this kill or be killed approach that I was forced to abruptly end the discussion has become a second survival tool. Of course, the violence that is endemic to Europeans who brought guns to this country, displacing thousands of Indigenous peoples and wounding or killing anything that moved should have taught us over the past couple of hundred years that violence begets more violence and never solves the problem. It’s not as if we were ever a democratic society in the first place. However, this arrogant, destructive patriarchal ideal still dominates American thinking while we project evil onto other countries and continue to deny our own. (As a country we have yet to take responsibility for destroying the Indigenous way of living in harmony with each other and all other non – human species). Greed is a way of life. More is better, and power is all.

Slowly and ever so painfully I have come to the awareness that there is absolutely nothing I can do to change what is.

What I am learning to do instead is to create an island around me by choosing a way of life in which compassion and caring for others, human and non – human is, if not the solution, at least allows me to live in a state in which my integrity and my love for all Nature is not compromised. This third survival tool is not new to me. I have attempted to live my life in this manner for 73 years, but the difference today is that I have to live this intention with as much awareness as I can muster on a daily basis. And some days I simply can’t stand what I know, and don’t want to know, regardless.

The fourth “solution” to an impossible dilemma has been for me to learn how to cultivate staying as much in the present moment as I can, taking deep pleasure out of the simplest observations – birds in the air, sunrises and sunsets, a spring flower, a river flowing to the sea. I concentrate on experiencing through all my senses, my mind and body, the astonishing beauty of Nature, the greatest painter, sculptor, Artist of all. Nature’s cycles also keep me in intimate communion with the seasonal shifts and how briefly we live out our individual lives in relationship to a planet that has been around for 4.5 billion years. “Time” as humans experience it is both linear and cyclic and both aspects need our acknowledgement and attention.

And this brings me around to another statement made by Joan Baez that mirrors my own evolving perspective reinforcing my fifth survival tool.

“ I don’t think we can think in big terms now, or we’ll just get under the covers and never get out. The little stuff… becomes more important right now because you have a chance at it. The world we are living in is being made horrible and is going to need every little victory…your family and friends (need to) feel some kind of support, some kind of goodness.”


She wonders if being on stage reminding people of a time when “we had the music, the cause, the direction, and each other is enough.”

I wonder the same thing as I continue to write, in part to save my own life and in the hope that my writing will touch others at a heart level – my sixth strategy for survival.

Joan ends her interview with another question. “Perhaps there is a virtue to having carried the flame, and grace now in passing the torch?”

Illness has restricted me for the last five months from participating in the world in a helpful and meaningful way, which has been unbelievably painful for me on a personal level. These days I cannot even take care of myself.

Maybe it is time for me too to pass on the torch as Joan is doing to the next generation in hopes that somehow these young people will find a way to survive this holocaust?

The problem for me is that I don’t know.

2 thoughts on “Surviving in the Face of Human Evil

  1. At the end of your post you wrote, “The problem for me is that I don’t know.”

    When a person knows that she does not know, she is in a far better position than a person who does not even know that she does not know.

    What do you think of the following:-

    “There really are people and institutions made up of people, who respond with hatred in the presence of goodness and would destroy the good insofar as it is in their power to do so. They do this not with conscious malice but blindly, lacking awareness of their own evil — indeed, seeking to avoid any such awareness. As has been described of the devil in religious literature, they hate the light and instinctively will do anything to avoid it, including attempting to extinguish it. They will destroy the light in their own children and in all other beings subject to their power.

    Evil people hate the light because it reveals themselves to themselves. They hate goodness because it reveals their badness; they hate love because it reveals their laziness. They will destroy the light, the goodness, the love in order to avoid the pain of such self-awareness. My second conclusion, then, is that evil is laziness carried to its ultimate, extraordinary extreme. As I have defined it, love is the antithesis of laziness. Ordinary laziness is a passive failure to love. Some ordinarily lazy people may not lift a finger to extend themselves unless they are compelled to do so. Their being is a manifestation of nonlove; still, they are not evil.

    Truly evil people, on the other hand, actively rather than passively avoid extending themselves. They will take any action in their power to protect their own laziness, to preserve the integrity of their sick self. Rather than nurturing others, they will actually destroy others in this cause. If necessary, they will even kill to escape the pain of their own spiritual growth. As the integrity of their sick self is threatened by the spiritual health of those around them, they will seek by all manner of means to crush and demolish the spiritual health that may exist near them.

    I define evil, then, as the exercise of political power — that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion — in order to avoid extending one’s self for the purpose of nurturing spiritual growth. Ordinary laziness is nonlove; evil is antilove.

    M. Scott Peck Psychiatrist & author “


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