Good and evil

Sundays before Quaker Meeting for Worship I read from Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace. Today’s homily was on good and evil.

It begins with the example of people who know they are good: my own favorite example comes from a statistic I saw somewhere, that more Americans (80%) believe in heaven than any other peoples, and 98% of the believers are headed that way.

It can be dangerous to believe one is good (and sometimes inaccurate, and often a not very interesting message for the listener). The danger is a willingness to vilify others. It comes as well in a lesser ability to listen. The frequent averral today that evolution didn’t happen sounds this way to me; skeptics may sound devout to themselves, but making belief in evolution into a moral issue seems to some of us like going to war against people who crack the wrong end of the egg – a poor justification for war.

It is difficult for me to listen to ideology, even where I basically agree, to hear the messages that may be there for me. It is also hard for me to look at that side of my personality. Oh I can see it in the younger more confused self, but not in my older self. The truth is that I have worked hard to dislodge ideology from my thinking and my heart, but in truth, it is still here.

Norris cites the Roman poet Terence: “I am human; I do not think of any human thing as foreign to me.”

After 9/11, we heard from the best of us. Scholars provided intellectual background and gave us context, and others shared messages both in writing and aloud that vocalized our horror, yet made us psychologically safer. Next to my library branch, a group provided a place for us to stand together nightly with our candles, and string from which to hang messages of loss and grief.

As I grappled with the horror, some of what we heard made me feel less safe, more anxious: “Don’t blame me, I voted Green” and “heathen Moslems” Thich Nhat Hanh helped me with an old poem:

Please Call Me by My True Names

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow–
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope,
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
My heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.

This poem helped me especially to understand the pain I felt when others reacted out of their own pain, to understand that pain, including the desire to not be the kind of person who could do this, the kind of person who creates a world where such as this might happen.

Norris discusses as well religion’s ability to restore some sick people to health. I hear a clash between those who wrestle with our demons via religion and those who wrestle in the offices of psychologists. I’ve heard some religious people who feel that psychology is too me-oriented, not realizing that some go to psychologists to do unto others a little better. I’ve heard people pray for an A or a new sweater. I’ve read people who pray to God to be better spouses, surely a topic for the psychologist’s couch, but their prayers and work are answered. I’ve heard people pray not to be happy, but to be happy with who they are. We all benefit from methods that speak in the language of our childhood, or that avoid the language of our childhood. But the language matters less to me than the quality of the questions asked, and the quality of the answers received.

One Response to “Good and evil”

  1. Kathryn Neale Manalo says:

    2005.10.04 Blog Response


    So you got a mention at Washington–Wow! Are congrats in order? Is your readership up?

    Read any Alice Miller? Her new book THE BODY NEVER LIES is out, on the suggested Network of Spiritual Progressives reading list, which I find interesting. It’s all about the Fourth (or Fifth, depending on who is counting) Commandment–“Honor thy father and mother”–and the efficacy or rather non-efficacy of forgiveness. I tend to metaphorically somaticize the living Earth and Cosmos, indeed think of her and that as a living body. Just as our bodies never lie, so to that body never lies.

    And science, scientific investigation is the language, if you will, of that body which is the living Earth, the living Cosmos, and her creatures who cannot speak in words as we humans are able (or perhaps the great whales also.) But isn’t increased temperature a form of communication, “behavioral communication of a living organism? Increased CO2 level, increased temperature, melting polar ice, heat waves, droughts, hurricanes are part of Earth’s behavioral repetoire–communication.

    In my work with severely disabled children without communciation, I always regarding behavior as meaningful and communicative–if only I can discern the meaning. And in communication theory–the sender, the message and the receiver are all essential–as is common language and the health of the articulators and receptors. So much happens in communication. Many of us are stuck in our infant, childhood, adolescent emotional pain bodies (Tolle), and as such are limited in our ability to both articulate and receive messages.

    Thanks for the good read!