You can be far worse than you realize. Without much effort. Without any outside help. With a magnitude you can hardly imagine. You have a tremendous capacity for evil.
There is no ceiling to how much evil you could do.
We don’t like to believe this. We convince ourselves that at our core, we are good. We know we can make bad choices. We understand we can be foolish. But we assume the bad stuff, the really bad stuff, is beyond our capability. We can all fill in the blank to complete the statement “I would never _______.”
Yet every week, I sit with people who are shocked by where they are. They never dreamed their name would be in the headlines, their wrists would be in handcuffs, their name would be jeered, or their reputation would be ruined. For years, they lived under the false assumption that those who did truly heinous acts were unique. They wrote the story that others are evil, but they are not. What they failed to realize is that few people are uncommonly evil. Most evil is done, not be uniquely bad people, but by very average people unaware of their capacity to make poor choices.
How can we have such a gap between perception and reality? Why don’t most people understand their ability to do truly bad things? It’s not just a misunderstanding about the human condition. It’s a lack of comprehension of the nature of evil.
Bad choices are contagious. Make one and you are likely to make another. In many cases, we’ve already made multiple bad choices before we even realize we’ve made the first.
How many people have sat in my office and said, “I never thought I would have had an affair.” At times, we walk through their decision-making to see where it went wrong. I’ll ask, “What was your first mistake?” They will talk about the first time they touched the other person or opened up themselves emotionally or when they knew it was headed a bad direction, but they didn’t say no. They always pick a bad decision, but no one ever names the first bad decision. With just a few questions, I can help them see multiple other decisions which preceded their “first” bad decision. (See: You Will Have an Affair If…)
It’s often a series of unseen decisions which precipitates a dramatic decision. The unseen nature of those small decisions sets us up to make the bad choice. But then, when the bad choice happens, everything speeds up. We often precede a bad choices with several bad choices and then follow a bad choice with several more bad choices.
I don’t know many good kids who plan on going to prison, but I know several good kids there. They never planned on pulling the gun or even committing a robbery, but a series of poor choices put them in a place they never expected to be only to make a decision of which they never dreamed they could make. The kids aren’t uniquely evil, they were simply deceived.
It’s a common deception, but one that can be overcome.
We have the capacity for evil, but we don’t have succumb to it. With a few practical steps, we restrict our capability for evil.
1. Recognize it. The first step is to break free from the deception and notice our actual potential for evil. As long as we are deceived, the deception holds power over us. However, when we know our possibility, we are more likely to recognize dangers and make wiser choices.
2. Give others empathy. We shouldn’t excuse the poor choices of others, but we should show empathy toward them. When we don’t see our potential for evil, we are tempted to judge those who make bad choices. Our judgment doesn’t greatly influence others, but it does hurt us. By focusing on the evil of others, we are less likely to see our own poor choices. (See: How to Better Control Yourself)
3. Give someone permission. You must have someone in your life who can tell you no. Without others who love us and are willing to confront us, we are helpless. While we are ultimately responsible for our own choices, we need friends and mentors who can help us with the tough decisions of life. Who can tell you no? Who feels, not just the right, but the responsibility to confront you if they see signs of greed or lust or selfishness? Who can get your attention? If the answer is nobody, you don’t just have the ability for great evil, you also have a great likelihood for it.
4. Correct mistakes quickly. Nobody is perfect. You are certain to make bad choices. The key to preventing evil isn’t perfection, it’s making sure you handle mistakes properly. Because bad choices are contagious, it’s imperative to recognize them and make them right as soon as possible. Our tendency is to deny or hide foolishness. Instead we need to see it and admit it. By shining light on poor choices, we are less likely to multiply our mistakes.
It doesn’t make for a great Hallmark card–“There’s no ceiling for how much evil you can do.” But it’s true. It’s a truth we can either recognize before we experience it or it’s a truth we will recognize after we experience it. The good news is that we can take a few practical steps to restrict how much evil we commit.