I've had trouble dealing with evil my whole life. As a child, I never understood it, and it scared me every time I encountered it. The first time I recall running into evil was in the second grade. There was a small group of boys who hung out together and enjoyed picking on other kids. They isolated me one day on the playground at recess, and the leader of the pack started pushing me around until he finally knocked me down. A teacher saw the whole thing and came over and scolded the pack leader.
Well, scolding just doesn't go very far with a person like that I found out. The next day the pack sought me out again at recess, and the leader again tried to pick a fight with me. But my folks had told me not to fight at school, and I just wouldn't do it. I still remember the smug look of satisfaction on the bully's face as he called me "coward." When still I would not fight him, the other pack members jeered and sneered as they followed their leader off to find another victim to terrify.
From then on, every time I saw the bully I'd get that slimy, gut-wrenching feeling that coats everything when evil is present. I felt violated by evil and felt it sap joy out of me as if the very essence of my being was just being drained away.
And I remember feeling that I'd never be the same again, and wondered if part of my life dissipated every time I encountered evil. I wondered if there was any way to recapture or regenerate that part of me - the innocence or the goodness - which I literally could feel evil taking away.
Years later, in high school, that same bully came into a classroom one day before the teacher got there and tried to make me move from where I was seated. He dropped his books, balled up his fists and said if I didn't move, he'd beat me to a pulp.
I was immobilized, totally stunned by this unexpected encounter with evil in the fairly safe environment of a classroom. As the thug stepped toward me to throw a punch, his foot landed on the side of my shoe. Off balance, the kid tripped and sprained his ankle.
Now, if you've ever experienced a severe ankle sprain, you know that it can actually be worse than a break. The thug went down like a sack of potatoes, writhing and screaming in pain.
The teacher, hearing the racket, ran into the room, demanding to know what had happened. My classmates all said that I'd knocked the bully down, so the teacher pretty much had me on the way to the principal's office.
Help came from a most unexpected source, however. The bully, still writhing in pain, sat up and told the teacher that I had not done anything to him, that he'd just fallen down.
For a brief instant, I thought that maybe goodness had overcome evil. But as I turned to the bully, he said under his breath that he would get me one day when I wasn't looking. Turns out that he was too embarrassed and would have lost too much face among his pack of thug buddies, if word had gotten out that he'd been whipped by one of the meek and mild.
That kid never bothered me again, though. I don't know why, but he lost interest in messing with me. Over time, though, my own life experience and historical studies of war and how horribly people treat other people gave me some understanding. Evil must be confronted, or it will take over everything.
About a dozen years later, by the way, that bully shot and killed his brother in a fight over a woman. He shot and killed his own brother...
By 1969, as I was to graduate from high school, the Vietnam War had reached its ugliest stages. I had to choose between going to college and going to war, and I chose college. While contemplating that choice, a phrase from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" sounded over and again in my mind, as it has ever since.
"Cowards die many times before their deaths," spoke Caesar, "the valiant never taste of death but once."
Ever since then, as I guess I will for the rest of my life, I've wrestled with whether choosing college categorized me as prudent or as a coward. But never having had to kill or be killed, never having gone in harm's way for another's sake, I've tried to learn as much about the historical causes of war as I could, in order to try and understand why evil exists in the hearts of men.
Evil certainly is not relegated to war and conquest, as it invades virtually every aspect of daily life. As the 20th century closed, the Enron Scandal - brought about by white collar criminals perpetrating evil - resulted in millions of Americans losing their retirement funds. Every day faceless middle-level managers seeking to ascend a corporate hierarchy work evil schemes to get themselves promoted. Executives in non-profit organizations funnel dollars into their own salaries and pensions, money contributed by the multitudes to help the less fortunate. And advertisers bring sleaze and sexual innuendo into living rooms across the land in television commercials, using sexual allure in an attempt to sell everything.
The thing that perplexes me most about evil, though, is that it exists at all. From whence, pray tell, cometh evil?
I don't think people are born with even a shard of evil in them. Evil has to be introduced into a person's soul. It has to have a place to take root and flourish. I believe that, you see, because I helped birth our three children. A newborn baby enters this world pure, undefiled, blameless and innocent - and you cannot convince me otherwise.
So why does evil exist? Why do people do evil things? Steal? Hurt other people? Kill other people?
Seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal said that all men hate each other. Scholars believe this was just one of his fantastic statements uttered aloud in court to force his contemporaries to debate the existence of God.
I used to think that, too, but now I'm not so sure.
Even if Pascal had it right, I've got to wonder where the hate came from. A newborn doesn't hate. I didn't hate the thug who pushed me down in the second grade. I didn't even hate him when he sprained his ankle trying to punch me out in that high school class. And when I read that he'd shot and killed his own brother, it wasn't hate that I felt. Instead, I wondered how in the world evil got into that boy, how it could have grown into a force that overwhelmed him and brought him to the point where he would kill his own brother.
When I contemplate evil, and look not only at our society but around the world at atrocities which go on each and every day, it's clear to me that surely a great many men actually do hate each other. My parents' generation experienced the Holocaust, whilst contemporary society has witnessed genocides throughout Africa, in Iraq and in Bosnia.
Sometimes, late at night, I look to the heavens and shout out loud, asking why evil exists. And there's no answer. I ask, but the void answers not. And I remember Pascal's phrase which fits so perfectly - "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread."
From time to time I try to talk to folks about evil and why it exists. Most folks uncomfortably change the subject, and I wonder if they contemplate this serious issue at all or simply attempt to avoid it altogether. "We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it," Pascal wrote.
How we can confront and defeat evil on a worldwide scale may, or may not, be tied into how we each deal with evil on an individual level. But is not how we live our lives in America, how we choose to act in an attempt to govern ourselves, all tied to our own individual contemplation of evil?
We, as a people, have reached what I believe to be a crucial juncture in the history of mankind. The choices we make over the next decade will have the gravest of ramifications. And those choices demand that we give all our thought to matters of good and evil, do they not?
International relations, issues from human rights to global warming, all demand a unity formed from a brotherhood of man, yet there are so many who perpetrate hate.
"They prefer death to peace, others prefer death to war," Pascal wrote. "Any opinion can be preferred to life, which it seems so natural to love dearly."
Our own country will choose a new President next year, and fully one-third of our representation in Congress.
"We do not choose as captain of a ship," cautions Pascal, "the most highly born of those aboard."
Indeed, how we think on good and evil, how we identify and confront evil and attempt to work good, must govern our choices.
"All our dignity consists in thought," says Pascal. "It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery. Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality."
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.