I Am Not Good
My “three angels” ended up being three devils!
And Jose Antonio, the most sleazy and cunning crook.
For four weeks in 2006, I stayed in a hotel in Santiago while recuperating from my travels in Latin America that had lasted for a year. The three seemingly kind housekeepers, whom I addressed as “my three angels” and who cleaned my hotel room and catered to all of my needs, as well as the hotel director, Jose Antonio, all behaved in a most professional and loving manner during this period. But the day before I was due to depart, with Jose Antonio as the mastermind, they conspired to steal all of my money and even did other horrible things that I will not delve into now. The façade had cracked, and all I could see was evil incarnate.
For the next twenty-four hours, I had dark thoughts of revenge. I thought of becoming a thief myself and sneakily taking something valuable from the hotel before departing; destroying some of the hotel’s property; or perhaps even hiring somebody to disturb or threaten Jose Antonio and his family! My anger knew no bounds. I soon realized that I had the potential to unleash havoc in all directions. When I looked deep within me, I saw, in all its nakedness, my primitive instinct for vengeance, my brute animal nature that wanted an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” What was worse, after this initial instinctive reaction had subsided, I had even more disturbing thoughts: I realized that in my core I am no different from Jose Antonio. I too had the power, if I so wished, to do as he did, and even do it better than him! I am always capable of doing the worst I can conceive of. The line of demarcation between good and evil suddenly seemed to be a thin thread that I could break at any moment. It was disturbing to face not only my deep-seated propensity towards evil, but also the fact that I came so near to actually acting it out.
Yet this is where my similarities to Jose Antonio ended. In the same way that “love is what love does,” evil too is what evil does. By having subdued my natural instincts and refrained from acting as Jose Antonio did, I had proved that I am not as he is. Had I ventured onto the path of vengeance and “introduced” myself into his life, I would have simultaneously been lengthening this despicable person’s presence in my life in the process. This would have more than offset any supposed pleasure I might have derived from my vengeful acts: By being continually preoccupied with Jose Antonio during my vengeful acts (instead of leaving the incident behind and moving on with my life) I would have been stewing in the actions that inspired such vengeance for much longer. Vengeance is always self-defeating.
I am potentially evil, yes, like all of us! I hold within me enormous destructive power. I too, don’t forget, was sent forth into this world by the same power that created Wilma the hurricane. I can choose to be destruction and mayhem, and even evil. But I choose not to. The darkness calls me every so often, like a seductive siren. I, like all of us, can clearly hear its familiar tune. But like Odysseus, I must remain tied to the boat’s mast so that I will not be led astray. The sirens are but the symbol of the sweet song of instinctive impulse and transient satisfaction that belongs to a world I am leaving behind. There can be no balancing act: One can either move forward or regress to the archetypal darkness and comfort of the animal within.
It is frightful to become conscious, every now and then, of the fact that all courses of action are always within our ability. And that we can choose to act like those whom we despise. Yet, what distinguishes me from Jose Antonio is not my inherent nature, which is the same as his. It is the way I act in spite of my nature. Or to put it better: It is not who I am that distinguishes me from him, but who I want to be. It is not my Nature that makes me different, but my Aspiration. It is not the static and potential, but the dynamic and real. And this dynamic is none other than the power of the human Will that can subdue its own animal nature. The thoughts that go through my mind are important, and cultivating positive thoughts ought to be a constant preoccupation. But irrespective of what goes on in my mind, in the end I am what I do. Of course, simply acting differently from Jose Antonio is not equivalent to being truly different; intention is also important. So, it is the acting differently in as much as it is synonymous to conscious striving to be different that makes me different! Therefore, I am only conditionally different from Jose Antonio. I am different from him in as much and for as long as I can resist my inclination to act as he does. I am not “good,” or at least I am not better than him, because of some special quality I have. I am good in as much and for as long as I do good. And herein lies the deepest truth of all:
I am who I am on a permanently conditional basis!
It is the constant reaffirmation of our struggle against evil that makes us good, not any permanent inherent quality we were born with, nor any permanent virtue that we have acquired or cultivated. Jesus’s opportunity to hit back on the various Stations of the Cross are pertinent here: He could have succumbed to the temptation to react forcefully against those who whipped him, crowned him with thorns, gave him wine to drink that was mixed with gall. At each moment he had to reaffirm anew his higher nature. He did not succumb to the temptation to accuse or harm, in any way, his tormentors. It is this constant reaffirmation that made him in the end the totality of who he became. As Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “Perfection is not an achievement; perfection lies in untiring striving.” None is perfect, but we are on our way to perfection in as much as we are consciously and untiringly striving to unabatedly reaffirm our higher nature.
In the end, Jose Antonio ended up giving me a great lesson in life, and thus, paradoxically, I am now thankful to he who years ago I wanted to harm. Jose Antonio is the symbol of what I, and all of us, strive to leave behind, because we decide to move forward. But most importantly, he is also the symbol of the conditionality of who we are, or think we are: for we are always as good as our last act.