The line between good and evil

Chaplain (Capt.) Lance Lormand (Air Force photograph)

With each New Year comes new opportunities and resolutions to better ourselves.

My resolution this year is a commitment to spend less time on social media and less time looking at a screen in general; whether phone, tablet, or television.

We all have probably considered ways in which we could better approximate the ideal self we all imagine, and often the applications on our devices can be used to help chart and motivate these goals. At the same time these very forces for good seem increasingly able to amplify our vision of what is wrong in others.

The echo chambers of social media, in particular, have made it almost impossible for many Americans to relate to one another, even members of their own family. Remember those Thanksgiving table conversations? Our news networks, friend groups and political identifications are all the more polarized and out of touch with one another, each group now quickly labeling those opposite them as “the problem” if not altogether evil in their views.

I’m sure we all know of a Facebook thread gone nuclear or a relationship destroyed over a simple disagreement. The sense that you can be torn apart at any given moment by taking the slightest opposing stance on an issue has only served to cripple civic engagement and further fuel our sense of isolation.

Religious groups of all kinds despite often being criticized for increasing division in fact point to a deeper problem, as the Soviet dissenter and Christian author Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart…and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Herein lies the real struggle of the human condition, not a battle of wills between myself and those unlike me but in fact the struggle between the light and darkness I carry around within my own heart.

I must admit that I’ve spent far too much time in my life trying to convert others to my views instead of living into those views myself, allowing myself to be transformed into the person I believe God has created me to be. I’ve chosen to see the worst in others while ignoring or spinning my own shortcomings as “not so bad.” There’s a lot that I’ve done and much more that I’ve left undone that I regret and need to turn away from. In theology, we call the process of moral and spiritual development “asceticism,” the grace infused art of reversing this natural formula so that we now see the best in others and the worst in ourselves- the mark of true holiness.

Solzhenitsyn continues, “Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.” The same has certainly shone true in my sometimes tricky work as a chaplain. No one is completely evil; neither is anyone altogether good, including myself. We are all rather complicated and mixed up, lost somewhere between the two ends. When we see the world through this lens, we recognize that there is something good and worthy of admiration in each person, even those with whom we are the most dissimilar. This does not mean that we all must gloss over our differences or hold our convictions more loosely, on the contrary, all views on a given issue can’t be equally valid or true, but it is to suggest that the only way to really make progress in spite of disagreement is to engage the person- not just their argument, or if we can’t do so in humility, simply to focus on our failures.

This is where social media in particular has exposed our baser instincts. It has stripped the person from the screen and left only a bare argument ready to be ridiculed and insulted in the bleakest of terms. Yet the fact is there is someone on the other end of that screen: a mother or son or perhaps even a friend, if we could only reach through the monitor as through a window instead of a just mirror reflecting our own biases. In time such humility can only foster personal connections and heal the wounds of our divided and fractured world: both digital and material. I plan to hold to my New Year’s resolution, recognizing “the line” in me that I may better see the goodness in others. May we all come to do the same.