Realizing that each and every one of us lives inside a story was a sobering experience. As the world’s cultures gravitate more and more towards variations of individualism, a question should beckon to us all: what kind of individual are you? All stories, whether fact or fiction, are made up of individual characters. We experience our personal stories from a first-person perspective thus rarely do we analyze our role in them. Are you the hero of your own story or are you a victim to be saved? Maybe you’re always a supporting or influencing character? Perhaps you’re the villain in someone else’s story.
We usually think of villains or antagonists as fictional characters in stories that we read or watch. We rarely think of them as real characters roaming around our lives. We almost never realize that we may in fact be the villains of our own stories.
Villains are consistently portrayed as personifications of evil. But what is evil? Think about that for a moment, because if you don’t understand evil, can you understand what it means to be good? And worse, if you don’t understand evil, how do you know you’re not participating in evil in some small way in your life? I know, these are heavy questions. But they were too important to ignore. Searching for their answers changed my life.
Evil is one of those words we rarely use anymore; as if it’s associated with an archaic hangover from our superstitious and religious past. I think it’s because evil is something that our modern scientific minds can’t observe in a lab or measure with human technology, so we’re reluctant to use it in our vocabulary. But evil isn’t a scientific concept. It’s an existential concept – a concept concerned with existence.
This blog post will not depress you. In fact, writing this post had the opposite effect on me, for illuminating the darkest of subjects uncovered the most enlightening information.
How Our Ancestors Viewed Evil
There’s a powerful chapter from an old story, a great creation myth in fact, which our ancestors have passed down across generations and cultures to warn us about evil. Before I delve into it however, I’d like to clear the air as many of us look back at our ancestors with contempt, as if they were barbaric primitives that left us with superstitious descriptions of reality.
An agreement has emerged among opposing scholars in the West that our ancestors actually viewed the world very differently than we do today. When describing an object, our ancestors were actually describing the affect the object had on their experience as opposed to describing its material properties. Imagine the first encounter with fire. Our ancestors would not have described it as an ignition point in the combustion reaction where flames are produced. Rather, they would have genuinely described it as they saw it: a magical substance, perhaps a spirit or god, of immense destructive power to be feared.
A good way to understand this in a modern context is to consider the idea that you should treat every gun as if it’s loaded. You don’t point it at your children or play with it. You perceive it as dangerous. If you were then to describe the gun in terms of the affect it has on you, you’d probably describe it as a dangerous, stress-inducing, destructive power that can take lives.
It’s important to ground ourselves in science when approaching this subject. Facts matter. Treating every gun as if it’s loaded is a really good idea and it works, in spite of the fact that not all guns are loaded. This is the difference between a metaphorical truth and a literal truth.
All the above is to prepare you for reading a story metaphorically (interpreting the ideas or feelings that the words invoke) instead of literally. Like all great stories, this one includes a valuable theme or message. It turns out our “superstitious” ancestors were far smarter than we give them credit.
An Old Story About Evil
The story is set in a place called “paradise” which comes from the Persian word “pairi-daēza” meaning walled-garden. What is a walled-garden after all? A safe place where nature exists in an organized manner. The perfect balance between chaos and order. A place of bliss. Yet in this place of bliss there lies a forbidden gateway into the unknown: a tree referred to by some as “The Tree of Knowledge”. I’m sure you’ve already figured out, I’ve set the stage for the story starring Adam and Eve. In its structure, the story of Adam & Eve is far older than monotheism itself.
“God”, a word referring to an unknowable omnipresent infinite, sets the laws of this story’s universe: the Tree of Knowledge is not to be eaten from “lest ye die” according to the Biblical story or become “wrongdoers” according to the Quranic story.
In the Biblical version, the highest of God’s servants, known as “Lucifer”, whispers arguments in the mind of the influencing character, Eve, causing her to convince the protagonist, Adam, to eat from the Tree. We know what happens after. Adam and Eve fall from paradise and descend into chaos. When they wake they realize that they are “naked” and cover themselves. Immediately, what Lucifer whispered to them prior to their fall becomes their reality: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
A similar, yet slightly different version appears in the Quran and it is fascinating nonetheless. Lucifer in the Quran is called “Iblis” (meaning “one who dwells in despair”). Eve is referred to as “Hawwa” (meaning “a tree whose leaves are very dark green”). She is not described as the one who convinces Adam. Iblis deceives both Adam and Hawwa by claiming to be a “sincere advisor”, convincing them to eat from the tree for they will become “masters/owners/kings” and become “immortal”. The rest of the story is similar.
Now what on earth does all that mean? Philosophers and psychologists have interpreted this story as a metaphor on the coming of self-consciousness of the human species. From a story-structure perspective, I think it’s a cautionary tale about the hero’s journey. It tells us how any character can become a villain.
What Adam & Eve Tells Us About Evil
When interpreted metaphorically, the story of Adam & Eve tells that even if our present state may feel like paradise, we are biologically wired to move forward in the world; to explore things of value in the unknown. Biologists refer to this as our central nervous system’s “orienting reflex”. When a loud unknown sound occurs, we orient towards it. We have no choice. It’s a survival mechanism we share with all animals. And the unknown will always be a part of reality. We will always be drawn to it for it will always be the source of new knowledge; we will always be drawn to “eat” from the “Tree of Knowledge”. But we must approach the unknown with caution and skepticism; treat it as if its “forbidden”, not approach it based on ideas by those claiming to be “sincere advisors” as Iblis did in the Quranic story or worse, think that it will make us “immortal”. For in the unknown lies information that when “eaten” or incorporated into our existence, can open our eyes and elevate our awareness of our reality or “wake us up”.
With each elevation in awareness, we gain more power – we become “masters” or “gods” as Lucifer stated in the Biblical story. But an increase in awareness is a double-edged sword for it allows us to understand more about our own nature. We realize how “naked”, fragile, and vulnerable we are.
In Adam and Eve’s case, eating from the Tree of Knowledge thrust them from paradise into chaos, elevating their conscious awareness by making them aware of the tragic condition of human existence: we feel physical and emotional pain, and we are aware that our time will come to an end. We are vulnerable and our time is limited. Surrounded by the chaos of infinite possibility, we feel overwhelmed, aware of our limitation, and thus we become aware of our state of suffering.
With this new found knowledge and experience, Lucifer tells Adam and Eve that they now know good and evil. Why? Because how we behave with our knowledge is a choice between the road to good and the road to evil. Here we find ourselves at the fork in the road and as the saying goes “the devil appears at the fork in the road”.
The Road to Evil
In both versions of the story of Adam & Eve, I think Lucifer and Iblis represent personifications of the inflated human ego and the dangers of the rational aspect of the human psyche. That’s a tough concept for our modern minds to grasp as there is a major emphasis on rational thinking in our contemporary culture. “Lucifer”, meaning “the one who brings light”, persuades Eve using rational arguments. In the Quran’s version, the first wrong act is committed when “God” asks Iblis (Satan) to bow down to Adam but Iblis refuses because he judges Adam as a lesser being. Iblis protests and rationalizes that he is made of fire, so why should he bow before a being made of clay? “God” banishes Iblis for reacting “arrogantly”. There’s an interpretation that Iblis was hurt by God’s request because he loved God too much to bow down to anyone else.
Our reality is structured in way that we can feel pain. Even if caused by undiscriminating, undefinable forces of nature or “God”, hurt will befall us, even while we are in a state of suffering. How we react when we’re hurt decides which road we will take. The story of Adam & Eve cautions that rationalizing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance and condemning the world for hurting us as Iblis did will set us on the dark path to evil. Reactions of pride or arrogance is the first step on the path to evil. As the saying aptly goes “pride goeth before the fall.”
I find it very interesting that the Quran refers to the villain as “Iblis” which means “the one who dwells in despair”. There’s an idea in psychology that too much suffering can cause resentment, a second likely step on the path to evil. Resentment is bitter indignation because you rationalize you’ve been treated unfairly. When we dwell too long in resentment, we feel hopelessness, the third possible step on the road to evil. Hopelessness leads to nihilism, the rationalization that all life is meaningless and the fourth step towards evil. If all life is meaningless, who cares if it lives or dies? Who cares if I live or die? If you think that things are fundamentally unjust, then why should u treat anyone, let alone yourself with compassion? The world is fundamentally unfair. Maybe it should be eradicated. Sounds like we rationalized our way into psychological chaos doesn’t it? Some say that’s what Hitler and Stalin concluded. Their antidote to extreme chaos was extreme tyrannical order in the form of a self-serving ideology which they rationalized, acted-out, and imposed on their societies.
In their pursuit of extreme order, both Hitler and Stalin subjected their people to extreme cruelty and committed atrocity, the final steps towards evil. For evil is having the knowledge of another’s vulnerability, the tragic condition of their existence, and taking advantage of their vulnerability to cause them pain and additional suffering.
In the Soviet Union under Stalin, soldiers would break in to your home at 2am and abduct you. At the prison camps they would immediately strip you and shave you. Once you were exposed in your suffering capacity, it was easier to torture you.
In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the prisoners were required to perform grueling self-evidently unproductive work by carrying 100-pound sacks of wet salt from one side of the compound and then back again, before they were exterminated.
I think you get the chilling picture. And evil spreads like wildfire. Being hurt by the touch of malevolence is one of the hardest things to recover from. It can jolt you to resentment.
Can You Commit an Evil Act?
We’ve all taken steps on the path to evil. Think about the times in your life when you were truly unhappy. Perhaps you hated your job or you were in a bad relationship? Maybe you were working two jobs, struggling to pay off debt, in addition to being in an unhealthy marriage. There are surely times when I started to feel resentful, unaware that it was because I had “dwelled in despair” as devil is so aptly named in the Quranic version of the story of Adam and Eve. The longer I suffered the more I felt hopeless and defeated. Life is fundamentally unfair, I remember thinking to myself. Everyone around me is unhappy. It’s every man for himself. Writing this blog post helped me step off that path. I realized that my “self”, my ego, was exaggerating its-“self” and rationalizing its victimhood.
We modern people have forgotten that the full quote is “every man for himself and let the devil take the hindmost”. There’s a chilling thought exercise that I came across: If you were a citizen of Nazi Germany, assuming you weren’t Jewish or a Gipsy, how do you think you would’ve behaved? If you think you wouldn’t have been a Nazi perpetrator or you wouldn’t have gone along, think again. The overwhelming majority of Germans were Nazis. In other words, you would’ve probably been one of them. After all, 100% of Nazi perpetrators were human beings, like you and I.
We usually thinking of evil as something happening to us, but “as none of us has a life in which no evil befalls him, none of us has a life in which he does no evil. The worm is in my rose too.” said Jeffery Burton Russel’s in his excellent booked documenting the history of The Devil. Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist, pointed out that to the degree that you condemn others and find evil in others, you are to that degree unconscious of the same thing in yourself, or at least of the potentiality of it.
Final Thoughts about Evil
I dove into the subject of storytelling as an aspiring screenwriter. I learned that I have to view my villains not as caricatures of evil, but rather as human beings like you and I, born with the capacity of good and evil. After all, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate in literature who wrote The Gulag Archipelago after surviving the concentration camps of the Soviet Union, said: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through every man’s heart.”
In my opinion, the best stories are the ones that do away with cliché type villains. What is the pathway that leads the character to become the villain? Thanos, the ultimate villain in Avengers: Infinity War, suffered chaotically after witnessing the loss of his entire species on Titan. Like Darth Vader of Star Wars before him, Thanos, was thrust on the path to evil when he finally took extreme measures to bring “balance” or “order” to a chaotic universe. I think that you cannot understand your hero unless you truly understand your villain. Recognizing your pathway to evil helps you recognize your pathway to good. Villains, after all, are instruments of the hero’s destiny.
I will leave you with a thought from Wolfram von Eschenbach, who’s regarded as one of the greatest epic poets of medieval German literature. He’s known for a short poem saying that every act has both good and evil results. The best we can do is lean towards the good – that is, intend the good, and you’ll find the harmonious connection that results from compassion with suffering. For we are all suffering. And compassion, after all, literally means “to suffer with”.
Well written! I like the linearity of evil, you describe
Evil and good are inevitable dichotomies in each human being. However, humans are made as meaning making machines. We give meaning to everything in life. If we see X, it would mean Y. This is how we function. There is no way out of meaning. This can be noticed when we deal with others as we always make meanings in our internal dialog about their appearance, words, and actions. So,approaching life from existentialist perspective, as Sartre states “[m]an is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” We could conclude that life is empty and meaningless that it is empty and meaningless. And the possibility of the possibility is the possibility of nothing, where nothing is everything! But, is it true that everything only exists in language?
Thank you very much Ahmed. Very interesting point. To add to your thoughts, in the story of Adam & Eve, one of the first things “God” does for Adam, is that he teaches him the names of the animals and plants. This is a metaphor for the concept that our minds actually don’t distinguish or see objects/things until we understand them and encapsulate them in articulated speech. We cannot see things we don’t understand. They appear as a blur in the background until we can analyze them and distinguish from the background. It’s a fascinating concept. Take the modern hypothetical concept of “dark matter” today. Scientists don’t yet understand it and hypothesize that it accounts for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe and about a quarter of its total energy density. It’s possibly composed of some as-yet-undiscovered subatomic particles. Until we analyze and name it, we can’t see it.
I for one can say that I too have been on the path to evil, as easy as it is to know another’s power they have over you the quicker it is for you to charge at the sight of their weakest points. I think we feel that if we waste that opportunity it may never come again. So we’ll find ourselves on the path to evil until it comes around again. But who’s to say its enough for an entire lifetime. We’re constantly on a hamster wheel until we come to the realization of how exhausting that process can be. Once we come to our senses that HUGE weight will be lifted thus giving us room to utilize that energy in a more proactive way.
Thank you Demetrius. Very wise words. We learn and internalize behavior as children by observing our parents, siblings, and members of our culture and society. In fact, we are not self-aware until we have reached the “age of majority” which is deemed to be 18 or 19 by most societies around the world. The frontal cortex of our brains doesn’t turn on until our early twenties. By that time, we are already thrust on a path in life that is determined by so many factors that are completely out of our control. Most of our behaviors are a series of involuntary reactions to obstacles and situations we face on our journey. Inevitably, we all fall down. It’s what we do at our lowest point that matters the most. Do we face our dragons and recognize the character flaws that made us fall? Or do we get swallowed by the dragon and become the dragon ourselves hoarding gold that is of no real value to us? Life is surely a moral landscape – a series of difficult choices. Facing one’s dragon is the only way to update one’s level of consciousness and free oneself from tumbling down the path towards evil.
I enjoyed the history, background, and connectivity you offered in this post. I want to add two thoughts. In English, l-i-v-e spelled backwards is e-v-i-l. Literally, to live backwards is to be evil. To do anything opposite of “live” is “evil.” To me, it gives an entirely new meaning to evil and a refreshing perspective.
My second thought, or perspective, is that man has created the concept of evil and given evil more power because man has ego which is judgemental. Through prejudice and judgement, based on survival instincts, man has a history of determining what or who is good (similar to himself) and evil or bad (different). Add to that the fact that organized religion used evil (demons, the devil, hellfire and brimstone) as a way of threatening followers to keep them in line, and evil grew in power. From there, the power of evil grew in the minds of humans. In reality, evil only has as much power as an individual gives it.
Because of ego and being judgemental, humans tend to regard things they don’t understand as “evil,” when, in fact, if they viewed an event, person, or situation from a different perspective, they could see that what they thought was evil actually isn’t. We literally create evil because we judge from a limited perspective. We see this a lot in writing, too. Telling a story from a first person, third person, or omnipotent perspective is going to change the viewer’s or reader’s perception.
In every situation, evil exists based only on perception.
Thank you very much for your comment Iris. Wow, “evil” being the reversal of the word “live” is fascinating. Love the idea of “to live backward is to be evil”. Your words are very wise. There’s a concept in mythology that the world is made of opposites. Everything in the field of time is dual: past and future, dead and alive, being and nonbeing. And every act has both good and evil outcomes. The categories of good and evil depend on where you stand. Opposites are considered one of the ironies of the world. As you said, it’s the choice and the intent of the individual that makes the difference. The hero is the one who comes to participate in life decently and courageously in the “way of nature” not in the way of personal rancor, disappointment or revenge.
Loved this post, and have been thinking along some of the same lines about a villain I am working on. That I need to go deeper with it. So thanks for the encouragement!
Thanks Wendy! Glad I was able to help!
Well Written Khaled! Thank You for Sharing.
I’ve been out spoken for years about LGBTQ rights. 20 or 30 years ago as an rights activist I was frequently was laughed at, shunned or totally ignored. These days I speak at UFO conferences on UFO Sightings Research that my wife of 15 years and I collaborated on. At these presentations, I clearly OUT myself as a former male person, and I explain who I used to be thirty years ago, and how I became the accomplished woman I am today. I receive healthy applause for my openness and transparency and sincere kudos for my ground breaking scientific research. Yet, when the videos of my presentations are posted on YOUTUBE, the Neo-Nazis of this era slam me on mass, calling me a degenerate, a monster and a crazy person. Evil is alive an well in our age and has been granted a Pass to express themselves in a most vicious manner an harass whom they wish. This is challenging for me, for I lived in a Buddhist Monastery for seven years in my mid-life. Buddhist teachings taught us to BE KIND above all else, to everyone! I struggle with how to be kind to someone who sees me as lower than nothing. Again Khaled, thank you for your stimulating thoughts. Bright Blessings Cheryl
Hi Cheryl, thank so you much for your open and honest comment. I sincerely appreciate it. It appears that evil has existed since the coming of self-consciousness of the human species. It exists within us all and will always be around. As I’m sure you know, the primary Buddhist dictum is that life is suffering which corresponds to the metaphor used in the story of Adam & Eve. The best we can do to look at people who commit evil acts as people have dwelled too long in suffering and despair. In South Africa, leaders like Nelson Mandella and Arch Bishop Desmund Tutu learned to view the leaders of the white apartheid regime as victims of their own distorted ideology; of their own suffering. That’s how they overcome them.
What an intriguing piece.
We have all played with the terms and definitions of “Evil”, “good”, “wring” and “right” but this piece is so articulately written that it becomes an eye opening one.
Thank you so much Shaden. Truly appreciate it!
It’s amazing how you brought this article about good and evil. In a real world it’s sad to know that we people are still learning how to control such state of mind. Or maybe it’s good for us all that we still learn. I sometimes wonder what is the reason for someone take such action. In my point of view it’s natural for someone who has been in a bad position and experience witch will comando he’s or her state of mind decide the last straw. It will define a tragic end. Just wish that we human could sense the results before the reality maybe the world would be a better place. But unfortunately we human live by example of another. If I am bad for you how can expected you not to turn around against me? The evil might take place only if we allow it . Thinking rationally it helps us to stop before it start. But I also wonder if in this state of mind everything it’s in balance like the day without night won’t be the same. So as the good wouldn’t exist without the evil.
Hi Marcio, thank you for your comment. The story referred to above cautions us about over-rationalizing. I think humans will always struggle with suffering – it appears to be a tragic condition of our existence. What’s also challenging is that the best way to learn is by experience: how we respond to our suffering is what makes all the difference.
Excellent Read! would have not thought of Evil in this context or the word “Iblis” which means “the one who dwells in despair”. True that we dwell too long and end up feeling resentment. We have to be in a constant state of awareness, which is sometimes very difficult to do. I enjoyed reading the history and the way the post is contextualized for the world today.
Thank you Aseel! I too was blown away when I learned that “Iblis” meant “the one who dwells in despair”. Very happy to hear that you found it helpful.
I found this blog absolutely profound and a delight to read. It honestly made me think about myself and others in a very different light. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Thank you Wojdan. Very grateful you found the blog post helpful. Thank you for your kind words.
Very inspiring Thanks for sharing .
Thank you Almotaz.
Mr. Khalid Sabawi sorry for the delay. My first thought was this is very wicked. Then when you think about wickedness and good is in all of us. Whether you comprehend it or not. Explosive or Inexplosive we have played each role. I’m gonna re-read it again tomorrow. You have me thinking about something a very good read sir
Thank you kindly for the share
And bless your heart
Thank you Kraig. Means a lot to know that I got you thinking. Feel free to share your ideas and thoughts here.
If your in the mood for reading, this is what I humbly think.
Ok if your not the ones committing evil, then you are at least or should be aware of it, perhaps you know someone who has been affected by the evils of war for example, then their actions affected you. Perhaps you have suffered at the hands of an evil abuser, for evil is how people can justify shooting animals, cruelly treating them and exploiting them and each other.
Seeing whats going on in the world will teach you evil, evil works through people you see it unless your blind, we all have spoken it? when you bump your toe for instance and get angry in general, or is evil spoken beyond cursing, (I hope so).
The provocation stems from evil and in its origin may not start within us yet still wants to work through us, who ever we are.
I think it’s a latent energy when it visits our psyche its trying to use you as its tool, why? to defeat the glory of our creator that has been given to each of us made in his image, just like with Adam and Eve.
For evil to manifest through you or I first it would play on your fears, thoughts and surely you or I would recognise it within the infrastructures of ones mind before its too late.
I’d imagine it likes to torment us and possess our thoughts. Does evil use your love against you? could it?, I think it can make us believe that if this happens then I would retaliate in this way, why would evil construct that? because our love is great.
That would be evil in its twisted accomplishment and what it can do, if it feeds on our fears.
I’ve experienced it just recently, it accentuates our fears and accelerates fight instinct based on our love, but is cancelled out because of pure love the only infinite shining love, and that is God’s love, is actually without hate.
So it has its own predatory energy, hunting on human souls, looking to weaken and destroy the light within us, so if you shine brightly you have to always close the door to its hungry seeking, and if your light is dimming from its provocation, just be aware of it, when it knocks, oppose it and question it and you will recognise its energy source before it possesses you, because it will try to consume the creator’s light within us all, at some point, given the chance, especially if your good ;).
Interesting stuff Anita. Thank you for sharing.
Very Good read
Thank you Phil. Glad you enjoyed it!
I have rarely seen such confusing, contradictory and unreadable legal speak coming from a reputable organization. I must assume you are trying to take advantage of your customers by asking them to agree to terms they cannot possibly understand. You are asking me to give you legal immunity but you won’t even give us a straight answer. I have significant legal experience and a 99-percentile verbal score, and I cannot make sense of the layers of unnecessary references to other sections, that refer other sections, that refer other sections…. No layperson can possibly understand the concept of ownership based on your terms. Why not write the terms in English like other screenplay contests (which are easy to understand and clarify who owns what?) It should be simple, I have a great script about climate change and I am looking to enter it in a contest, without giving up any ownership. After an hour of reading I can’t understand your conditions… and never will, which I believe was your lawyers goal, the line spacing and excessive length are the giveaway that it was made deliberately unreadable.
The contest rules require PG-13. Really? You think PG-13 is sufficient to talk about fascists destroying the world and killing all life on the planet? We don’t live in a PG-13 society and we, including young children, are not faced with PG-13 problems. The Bible, Mikra, Gita, and Quran are not PG-13. Its time for the world to grow up and see the truth.
No contact info? You don’t have email? (I shouldn’t have to register with another site that will sell my personal information to Russian and Saudi spies to contact you)
Hi Dan, my apologies for the late reply. It’s been a busy end of year. You can reach me here any time here and i’ll respond as soon as I can.
As for the PG13 rating, Climate Change is an issue that will effect younger generations more than the older generations, thus its paramount that we respect the regulation on what the younger generation can view.
Thank you again for your feedback.
Let’s talk about what it is love and forget about evil. This will definitely be helpful!
Hi Claire, I definitely plan to write about love. Writing about evil is like identifying the negative space on a canvass. Once you do that, the good/light/love emerges.