I used to wonder why so few people enlighten themselves. Surely, if the benefits include self-control and power over one’s own soul, then everyone would be doing it? But I realise now that enlightenment means we have to come to grips with the fact that you and I could have been a Nazi concentration camp guard, a Rwanda machete murderer or a Mongol building a pyramid of human skulls in eastern Europe. The reason it feels so shallow and unconvincing when people say “oh, don’t worry, you’re such a good person” is because it sounds like wishful thinking. Like something an advertiser might say. And I don’t think people believe it.
There’s a terrible beast inside of each of us. You can feel it sometimes, rising, wide-eyed. If you can’t accept that you could have been a Nazi, then I think you have absolutely no idea who you are. Imagining yourself as a Nazi is terrifying, but I don’t think you get any insight whatsoever into your capacity for good until you have some well-developed insight into your capacity for evil. In the cold, dark corners of your mind, there are motivations so terrible that they would traumatise you if they were ever revealed. Everyone knows at some level of analysis that this is absolutely true.
And you’d think since enlightenment is viewed as the medication for vulnerability and death, that everyone would be struggling as hard as they possibly could to be enlightened. But if the barrier to enlightenment is the development of the self-consciousness of the individual human’s infinite capacity for evil, then you can be immediately convinced about why enlightenment is in such short supply.
You see, evil and suffering are not the same things. For instance, cancer isn’t evil because it’s a natural part of living. Evil is what happens when a person – who already knows that a reality of nature exists – refuses to harmonise themselves with that reality. To harmonise yourself with reality minimises the inevitable suffering inherent in living as a vulnerable human being. To remove suffering entirely wouldn’t be a good thing because as vulnerabilities are removed, so too is removed the part of yourself that makes you human. Limitation and vulnerability is what makes it possible to have a story.
Evil happens when a person refuses to harmonise with reality and therefore exacerbates suffering. In other words, evil is the maximisation of suffering. A “correct” society as seen on that United Airlines plane is not the way to achieve this. Here we can see an environment in which the nature of reality was apprehended but then discarded in favour of an idealised reality.
Everyone on that United Airlines jet knows this is true. But still, evil entered the fuselage. You have to know – not feel, know – that evil isn’t some ethereal force wafting through the air waiting to descend on unsuspecting humans. It is a consequence of arrogantly refusing to a) accept that a reality exists, b) resigning yourself to that reality and c) doing the work in every moment of your life to harmonise yourself with that reality and reduce the level of suffering for you and others.
If you had stood up on that flight and yelled “stop,” chances are people around you would look at you weirdly – at worse you might be arrested for obstruction. That’s only suffering. Everyone suffers. It’s how you get through it that makes you a person. But not to stand up is the introduction of evil. There’s no way around this.
And yes, I know this risks placing you as the most important person in the world – a concept (narcissism) I’ve written against many times. I don’t think that makes it untrue. That you are responsible for ensuring evil does not enter the world in every situation you are privileged to occupy is precisely the insight of enlightenment. You have to believe that the reason bad things happen is because you and I are not good enough. We’re not good enough, and have a lot of work to do. We’re not good enough, and we know it. We’re not good enough. We’re not good enough.
No one can prove scientifically that everything we do actually, really, truly matters, but you have to believe it in the teeth of evidence. Otherwise, no one will stand up and people will be hauled off planes or to the Gulag. Suffering is going to happen anyway. You’re going to feel pain, there’s no hiding from it. Why not stand up right now and speak the truth? Nietzsche once said, “if I have a why I can endure any how.” And that’s exactly right. The things you do really matter. And the sooner we resign ourselves to this reality, the sooner we can go about removing some of this damn suffering.