All of us have the capacity for good or evil actions, but I believe that at the core our essential beings are goodness. This does not mean that I believe there is no evil in the world–there is, and a lot of it–but I believe that evil actions are the result of choices that are in turn the result of a lifetime of combined experiences that form who we become. But those things didn’t form who we are–at our core–they formed who we became.
Once, when I was in my early twenties and had already been a pacifist for a decade, I had a dream in which I walked into a crowded room (the Student Center at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville), pulled out a pistol, and cold-bloodedly shot a man. That dream shook my moral foundation more than anything else in my life because it took the me I knew and turned that knowing on its head. It made me question my pacifism, my entire ethical construct, and it made me question whether I knew myself at all.
But it was also a gift because it made me understand that within me is the animal nature with which we are all born. It made me acknowledge that within my complex psyche I have the capacity for choosing hatred or love, death or life, and evil or good. It made me realize that I have no moral high ground as far as the capacity of my being. It would only be in the paths I choose that I could maintain any kind of morality. Of course, being human, I have sometimes chosen badly. Understanding my humanity, though, allows me both to forgive others and myself much easier. I can be kinder as the result of this knowledge. Morality is all about choices. I can choose to be compassionate, kind, understanding, and forgiving, or I can choose to be judgmental, mean, and relentlessly unforgiving.
This also helps me understand that those who make choices that I may believe are not good choices, that are in fact sometimes antithetical to everything in which I believe, are not necessarily evil people. Their choices may appear evil based on my moral standards, but I know the people behind those choices to be essentially good, which leads me to other conclusions. They are either making moral choices that they believe are right and their reasoning in arriving at their conclusions is different than mine, or they are like me when I make bad choices and they will one day hopefully understand those choices better. I believe in the power of redemption for all.
These thoughts come to me now because we are once again in a political season and each new political season seems to grow more and more polarizing. I have friends on the right claiming that all liberals are fools. I have friends on the left claiming that all conservatives are evil. Neither is true and neither leads to a better understanding of our differences. This kind of divisive language leads only to further entrenchment of polarizing views. The sad thing is the people using this kind of language are good people who truly believe they are right based on their set of morals. What they don’t understand is that those on the other side are also good people who truly believe they are right based on their values.
It is my contention that if I call someone with whom I disagree a fool they’ll be even a little less likely to agree with me the next time. If I want them to come to my point of view then dialogues, not diatribes, are much likelier to work. I’d rather sit and talk with someone and find out why they believe what they believe and try to get them to understand my point of view than to yell names back and forth across a fence. I’d rather tear down the fence and build something together where we can both stand protected from the elements of fear and hatred.
Again, I believe we are all essentially filled with goodness. We need to work toward finding our commonalities and our shared goodness if we expect to stand on any moral ground whatsoever. If we don’t, then that is a choice we make and hopefully there is understanding that all choices have consequences.