The categories of good and evil have been around for so long, and are so ingrained in our ways of perceiving and judging, that it’s easy to interpret our daily lives as battles of the two forces like we’re in Lord of the Rings or something. This business is the epitome of evil. That pop culture thing is absolutely sinful. This woman is a saint. My co-worker is the devil.
More often than not such judgments are, indeed, about people (though some non-people things like mosquitos and brunch-flavored candy corn are obviously straight from hell). And–also quite often–we give ourselves a pass while condemning most everyone else. I am a good person. They are bad people. It’s easy to see the brokenness in the world; harder to see the brokenness in ourselves.
The truth is that we are all just a bundle of potential yet to be realized. We are born neither evil nor good. We are like a ball of clay waiting to be shaped into something more.
People can be the worst. Destructive. Deceptive. Ignorant. Dominating. Injurious. Lazy. Self-centered.
People can actively destroy the planet even as researchers make clear how damaging the effects are and what the long-term consequences will be.
We can know the truth and yet mislead others in order to avoid blame or to get credit/power/compensation/respect.
We can belittle, cut off, and cut down the people around us in damaging and disabling ways.
We can actively choose or passively allow ourselves to be ignorant of basic facts and features of our world when there’s good reason to know and act on them.
BUT people can, sometimes, be the best. Generous. Creative. Wise. Humble. Courageous. Engaged. Inclusive.
If we work to realize our human potential in a beautiful, flourishing way, we can:
Live long, robust lives by taking care of our bodily health and the health of our environment.
Donate our time and money to important and urgent causes.
Build vibrant relationships and community.
Strengthen other people’s dignity and self-love by making sure they get the spotlight and credit they deserve.
Be kind, forgiving, and reconciling–even with people who have hurt us.
Experience real joy and contentment as we better understand and fit ourselves into the world that we’re an interconnected part of.
At any given time, your actions are shaping your human potential for the worse or for the better. These directions of better or worse are how we ultimately start categorizing people as good or evil as we so often do. Others have described these possible paths in different terms. In The Great Turning, David C. Korten describes them as the way of empire or the way of earth community. The film The Tree of Life depicts them as the way of nature or the way of grace. The Harry Potter character Sirius Black (shout-out to Harry Potter) metaphorically says that, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” Good/evil, earth community/empire, grace/nature, light/dark are all ways of describing the dual ways our potential can unfold.
And, of course, most of us are not fully one or the other. There are few human beings of the billions who have ever lived that could be described as completely evil or wholly good. We are, each of us, always on the way rather than at the final stop: on the way of empire or on the way of earth community; on the way of nature or on the way of grace.
It’s actually unlikely to be very beneficial to think about someone as good or evil. These are the extremes. And they’re also quite static. People are constantly changing–for the worse or for the better. Someone could seem hellish one day and the best of humanity the next. Our human potential is a long-unfolding thing–clay taking shape and being reshaped until it starts to finally harden into something more permanent over time.
So rather than classifying other people as evil or the worst or whatever else, and writing them off as irredeemable, perhaps think of them as having not yet realized their potential as a human being in a flourishing, gracious, communal kind of way. Maybe one day they might. God knows it’s not today–you’re going to try hard to wish them the best even though you half wish their iced coffee spills all over them. But hopefully one day. Because people can be the worst or the best. It’s not predetermined, static, or absolute. And certainly, you, me, and most everyone else haven’t fully realized our potential in a flourishing way either. Let’s aspire to the way of earth community, light, and grace (or whatever you’d like to call it), and be patient with one another as we go.