Evil Was In Us All Along

Ryan Fan

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The above-mentioned quote is my favorite from the HBO series because it conveys a fundamental life truth. We often look at life changes and actions as we get older and think that we’ve changed irreversibly somehow, like substrate turns to product in an irreversible chemistry reaction.

But the truth is that we didn’t change. Whatever we did, whatever we’re ashamed of, that thing was a part of us all along. Bacho says the quote in the context of telling the story of the first time he shot someone, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Although he felt like he had changed, he woke up the morning realizing that he hadn’t. What happened was an awakening of a capacity for killing in him, mostly driven by emotions like fear.

And we can take a lesson away from Bacho to realize that we’re always ourselves, even when we don’t feel like it. I have never been in the military, nor have I ever shot someone. However, as a first-year inner-city teacher, I have acted far more authoritatively than I have wanted to my kids. I only resort to being commanding and exerting authority when I feel like I have no choice, but the fact still stands.

I regretted it the first time I had to act authoritatively, and yet now, I have to do it with regularity. I didn’t think it was a part of me. It usually doesn’t include any yelling, but rather a firm statement like “I wasn’t asking you. I’m telling you to sit down right now”. I have always thought of myself as a kind, patient, and understanding person, yet even I have had to resort to being the mean teacher, at times. I joke frequently with friends about how my job is turning me into a bad person, which is partly true. Yes, there’s a difference between strict and mean, and either one of those isn’t something I’m used to as a Christian who frequently interprets living as a Christian as “turning the other cheek” and being a doormat — and rejoicing when doing so.

However, I have had to be strict. At times, I have had to be mean. At times, how I’ve had to act as a teacher horrifies me. I think that this isn’t me, that, as a nice person, I won’t ever be nice to people again after a bad episode in the classroom.

But I go home and interact with friends and loved ones the same I always have. I haven’t changed. I grew.

And the fact is that all of us don’t change, we only grow.

As an authority figure, I would have never survived always being a pushover and doormat. While I can choose to stand down and reconcile in my personal relationships, I cannot always do it in a classroom of very traumatized students, with my job being to provide a safe learning environment for all my students.

All of us will one day will be faced with conflicts and decisions where we have to do something bad, inflict some type of evil to either survive or to protect the greater good. Good people who work in law enforcement or the military will sometimes be forced to kill. Bureaucrats who prioritize relationships and respect will inevitably have to turn away the long line behind the red tape at closing hour. It’s a thin line and gray area.

I would much rather err on the side of mercy. On most cases, I have. Mercy triumphs over justice every time, but that is much easier said in theory than in practice.

To me, there has to be another way than doing the traditional and ways we don’t want to, ways that aren’t so merciful. And right now, for me, I don’t know of any great alternatives. I’m looking. I’m searching, and yet there will always be people above us that want us to lead in ways we’re not comfortable with. And yes, making authoritative, harsh, and dehumanizing decisions is a part of us. It is a fundamental part of the human condition.

But I wish for a world where mercy was the norm. Grace is giving people the benefit of the doubt, especially when you don’t think that person deserves it. If someone has harmed or abused me, I can give them grace. I can keep the bigger picture in mind. But if someone harms a person I love, a person I’m in charge of taking care of, then it’s a different story.

As a Christian, there are so many times I act un-Christian that I pray to confess all the ways I fell short at the end of the day. On most days, the list is endless. Humans are inherently bad in the Calvinist line of thinking — prone to sin and bad and harmful decision-making. Only through redemption and salvation in Christ, I believe, can I do better.

For me, for us, perhaps the first step is realizing that we were worst than we ever imagined, that we are capable of anything. That means great, astronomical accomplishments and labors of love, but that also means cruelty and atrocities. I like to think that I would have been the exception if I were a Nazi soldier during World War II, and when I was younger I would have said “of course,” but now, with a much more wary and experienced view of life, I’m not so sure.

If we want to recognize our capacity for good, for bringing about positive change, then we also have to realize our capacity for evil. It’s in us. It’s always been us all along. Now what are we going to do about it?

Originally published on December 29, 2019 on The Partnered Pen

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD
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