by Michael Maciel
Most of us are trying to make something of our lives. We have values, and we want to realize those values in our living—to make them real, to manifest them in the world. Having values is the same as saying that your life is oriented towards the good—the ideal you envision for yourself, your family, and for the society you live in. It’s the same because it’s impossible to want anything unless you value it. “Where your treasure [value] is, there will your heart [desire] be also.” The heart wants what the mind deems worthy.
We define setbacks in our life as those instances where we fail to reach our goals. We miss an opportunity, we reach but fall short, or we fail to meet an expectation, either of others or our own. This is the source of our anxiety—the ever-present possibility of failure. This fear is simultaneously our nemesis and our strongest ally, because it keeps us alert, and it goads us to try our best in all of our endeavors. But when our anxiety supersedes our desire to succeed, we take fewer risks. We cease trying. We tend to hunker down in the safety of the known, the tried and true. Too much fear stops us moving forward altogether. And since life never stands still, it leaves us behind, until we are cut off from our own vitality and die. In the face of our greatest challenges, it is fear that we need to conquer—“We have nothing to fear but fear itself”—not some external foe, real or imagined.
No one is perfect. “All have fallen short of the glory of God.” This is the number-one reason why Jesus told us not to judge. “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” If you are a person of good will, you naturally want to do your best to expunge the world of evil. And evil is everywhere! But it’s not so easy to reconcile our own evil, the malevolence we carry around in our hearts, the desire to correct the extraordinary evil in others. We would do anything to eliminate the atrocities we see on an everyday basis. We might, if given the chance, murder those who commit them, because our zeal to do good can easily flip and become its own kind of atrocity.
Recognizing that we have the capability to do evil is in itself a horrendous failure. That’s why we don’t go there. We don’t sit with our propensities and acknowledge their existence, because to do so would show us that we aren’t good at all, at least not as good as we hope to be. So we try to bury it, we keep it under lock and key, like Pandora’s Box hidden away in the cellar of our psyche. But what we conceal in darkness has its way of oozing through the cracks, and we find ourselves doing strange things that we cannot control, things that we believe only strangers are capable of committing. And when we do them, we become strangers to ourselves. And that, dear friend, is our downfall. It’s when we surprise ourselves with our capacity to do evil that our lives are upended, either in big ways or small.
So, imagine what power there might be in getting to know the contents of the darker corners of our hearts, to go into each contest, whether external or internal, knowing that the evils we hate have already taken up residence within us. In fact, they have been there so long that we can hardly regard them as other. On the one hand, knowing that we can just as easily be bad as good can make us more compassionate. We’re not as quick to condemn, because we’ve “been there.” But, on the other hand, since knowing this about ourselves is a failure in itself (perhaps the biggest failure of all), we might want to simply give up, to write off the whole human endeavor, to see the world as hopelessly flawed and unworthy of our efforts to change it, since we ourselves are the problem we wish to solve.
This, however, is the greatest failure of all. It’s what keeps good people doing nothing, because there’s no better way to psyche out your opponent than to get inside his head and make him doubt himself. And those who are unabashedly evil-minded do not hesitate to do that every chance they get—to make you feel guilty, shameful, inept, and powerless. True heroes, however, already know that about themselves and enter the battle anyway. In a way, they know they don’t have anything to lose and are therefore the most dangerous. They have no badges of honor to defend, no purity to preserve, no inviolable standards to uphold, because they know that they have themselves violated all these values. They themselves have been untrue. They themselves have done the evil they seek to overthrow. Really accepting that eliminates any pretense in the combat. This is what makes the wounded warrior a formidable foe.
If you are serious about doing good in the world, understand one thing: there is no virtue in naivete. None. It does not give you strength. It doesn’t make you pure. It doesn’t mean that you are better than the evildoers you hate. It only means that you are naive. And realize this, too: If you are hellbent for justice, you are potentially the most hateful, malicious, and genocidal person in town. History is full of such do-gooders. And millions upon millions have died as a result of their self-righteous efforts to purify human society. Don’t be one of them. Not at any scale.
Let’s call it the vehemence of justice. Its tools are the flaming social-media posts, the student rallies at universities, the riots of tear gas, rocks, and broken glass, and, finally, the guillotine, the firing squad, the forced marches, and the death camps—all in the name of righting wrongs, of casting out the beams from the eyes of others, of ridding the world of evil. What we repress, we project. And God help those upon whom we project the things we are unwilling to look at within ourselves! Justice—real justice—never froths at the mouth. Real justice knows how to restrain itself, to make the punishment fit the crime, not gouge out the eyes of those who only knocked out a few teeth. Real justice doesn’t force anyone to do anything, but instead deals with the present moment without imposing a utopian vision that has room for conformists only.
“Judge not that ye be not judged” doesn’t mean to let everything slide. It means
stop condemning other people for displaying in broad daylight the things you are hiding in the dark. Stop that. Stop it now. If you see something you don’t like, something you wish other people would do differently, imagine yourself in their shoes. Chances are that if you do, they will fit your feet perfectly.