I still remember attending a logic class when the university reopened a week following the assassination of President Kennedy. The angry graduate student instructor that I had been assigned to was part of a team that tried to clarify to a bunch of undergrads what the wild eyed and mostly incomprehensible professor had lectured about earlier in the week. As we gathered for the first time, still more than a bit dazed by what had happened in Dallas and without any idea how the act would ultimately change all our lives, he glared out at us and asked, “Now do you believe that evil exists in the world?”
Today as I hunker down nearly fifty years later and try to protect and nourish the loose ends of what I hold precious, I continue to ponder the idea of evil and the threats it brings, especially now that it seems to lurk about in so many places in our demon haunted world. We are reminded daily of the thin barrier we think we have erected between ourselves and the violence that takes one life while flipping another toward a different destiny. Some faces seem ordained to go on while others simply vanish, no longer there to smile back at us.
The evil in this world takes many forms, foremost in the guise of the killers and mad men who gunned down children in Connecticut or kidnapped young women and held them hostage in Cleveland for years. Fortunately, such horrific deeds don’t happen to most of us.
Evil can also be described in a broader way in how our worlds can deteriorate, both physically as well as ethically, almost before we know it. Although there may not be any dramatic violence involved, the funding changes proposed by Congress is another form of evil that will lay many a person low. Men, women, and children will all be affected. One day families which have been struggling just to stay afloat will lose their much needed safety net and be out on the streets homeless. Most vexing is the watch that we must stand against the ideologues and flim flam men who go about their sinister work under the veil of efficiency, cost cutting and ridding government programs of waste.
I have read recently of three specific people who are in deepening trouble and desperately scrambling to make the proverbial ends meet in these ever lean and hungry times. One is a thirty-something man, estranged from his family and deep into schizophrenia. The treatment center where he was living and making progress has closed its doors due to rising costs and falling government funding. Another is a poor single mother with two children who depends on various food stamps to feed her family. A third is a disabled veteran who cannot find work and is sinking into alcoholism. Aid is disappearing by the day.
What I see that causes me most concern in these people is how close to the edge they are. Just recently, news reports covered the increase in suicides of middle-aged men who had lost their jobs and could no longer provide for their families or pay the rent. Death by their own hand can become the only solution. As Camus said, it is the ultimate act of will.
When men and women are driven to despair, they are often more prone to react in unorthodox ways. The deadly sins that have been committed against these poor souls have destroyed their sense of grace and dignity. Some of them approach their challenges directly, even stoically. Others turn to prayer or other mysterious ways to help them understand and cope with what has happened. Sadly, some just give up and resign themselves.
In their slower and more insidious forms, though, the changes that are fraying the social net can worm their way even deeper into our lives by twisting people in unwanted and sinister directions. Individuals we once thought we knew well begin to show signs of a certain madness that one fears will take their natural eccentricity to somewhere else. Even in marriages, there is always that worry that one may wake the next morning beside a stranger who will look at us differently, as though we no longer belong in their lives. Or a neighbor who just yesterday leaned over the fence to swap stories but now is silent when greeted. What’s going wrong?
Although change, time and chance, of course, are in the playbill for all of us, I fixate at times on how few policy makers see the faces of the people they’re affecting. Like pundits who are quick to encourage military action that takes someone else’s loved one into harm’s way, I see the banality of evil in those who take pride and build up constituencies from their columns of numbers, but are deaf to the cries of hungry babies. I suspect none of their children will ever don a uniform or go to bed with anything other than a full tummy. Things aren’t always as simple or as innocent as some would make us believe.
When I rejoice in where I live now with all its comforts and the love of the woman who shares it with me, I still am concerned and anxious for those less well off. Emmett, the old man who first found and developed this land that has become our home and sanctuary in a world of strife, wanted a community that would work together to maintain and care for our idyllic setting. Even though he’s been gone many years, I can see him now also worrying over the changes that have affected so many people in recent times. He was born in poverty but escaped it by going into the Navy before WWII had begun. He later found himself aboard a submarine in the South Pacific fighting against Japanese forces. Those years transformed him from a rough hewn country boy into a responsible and courageous individual who tried to find the best in everyone and likewise gave everyone a fair shot. I’m confident that the “old shipmate,” as he called all of his friends, would be doing all he could today, as all honest people are, to reverse these austere measures that hurt the poor, the elderly, the infirm, and the forgotten.
When a large segment of society is down and out, though, I fail to fathom why so many who have the means and should know better do not help but rather plunge even deeper into their own narcissism and turn to “hippie magic.” They are the ones who hang out glass beads in hope of riding a sunbeam to another world. I can’t figure out why they market in herbal remedies to ease life’s pains, why they seek out demented seers who promise to reveal secret paths to happiness in the face of tragedy, or why they resort to “cleansing” rituals to purge themselves of all things toxic. Meanwhile, real people are going hungry and making do without any health care.
In light of the serious situation, why do more people not rise up and shout out their protest? Why do we enjoy wallowing in ignorance and professing a firm belief in guardian angels and flying saucers? Why are so many adamant in denying global warming and eager to reelect the likes of someone like South Carolina’s Mark Sanford? Why do the faithful still hold their beating hearts in their hands when they continue to be betrayed by men in robes who do not really care if they live or die?
All good questions, I suppose, but I have no answers. I suspect evil continues to lurk in all the dark recesses of our lesser selves.
Against such odds, I can only shake my head, do my little part, and try to appreciate how the ephemeral music I play as a temporary diversion works somewhat for me, at least for the time being. I learned long ago that the first lesson of civilized life is to accept the ineluctable without excess tears. These times, however, try that philosophy.
In the meantime, I’ll continue wrestling with a “come along” that has a tendency to bind and delay my attempt to get a leaning pergola back in plumb. If set up correctly, this fascinating tool can move great weights with one crank at a time of its gears. Unfortunately, the one I have can be cantankerous and in need of coaxing at the most inopportune times. Despite its flaws, though, I couldn’t get the job done without it. If only some of the regressive Congressmen in charge of budgetary matters would behave as my “come along”: accept that you’re flawed but do your best to be honest and straightforward in performing your task. With a little effort, maybe things can be righted.
In her poem The Land of Beginning Again, Louisa Fletcher sums up my feelings,
“We would find all the things we intended to do
But forgot, and remembered too late,
Little praises unspoken, little promises broken,
And all the thousand and one
Little duties neglected that might have perfected
The day for one less fortunate.”