Recognizing the Evil in Our Everyday Selfishness

selfishOur little town puts on a lighted Christmas parade every year. It’s basically tractors with Christmas lights, but my wife seems to love it. It’s sort of like a living Garrison Keillor story complete with hypothermia.

So we loaded up our camping chairs, stopped for some Chinese food, and headed down to Front St. to scope out some ideal real estate. Most of the town empties onto the boulevard and if you’re late to the party, you’re going to miss out on a choice spot.

We ended up sitting next to a family of four with two adorable little kids. While most of us were sitting comfortably in the chairs we brought, this couple stood out—literally. They were standing patiently with their kids watching down the road for the parade to start.  We chatted with them, like small-town people do, about their recent relocation to the area and our mutual affection for Thai food.

At some point the mother went to take one of the kids to a bathroom, and the father was left standing there holding his daughter. It was then that a group of five across the street spotted what seemed to be a chance to upgrade their location and, without a word, rushed over and began claiming the space left by this mother who had ran to the restroom. It felt like I was watching a re-imagined version of the Columbus story.

As they edged this guy out of the space he’d been saving for 45 minutes, my wife and I were incredulous. To this guy’s credit, he didn’t make a scene. He gave them some room and held on to just enough space for his family to ensure that his they could keep a portion of their spot.

After a few minutes, his daughter started wandering off and he went to grab her. The second he vacated his spot, this group moved their chairs to fill it. He returned incredulous, “We’ve waited here for 45 minutes, and you’ve just moved in and stole our spot.”

The woman looked at him unfazed and said, “Oh, we thought you left.” She then scooted her chair over and gave up barely enough space for one person to stand. Frustrated, the family started walking down the street looking for somewhere else to stand.

My wife immediately said to me, “Lets give them our chairs.” It was a good idea. We didn’t have kids with us, we had a choice spot, and it wouldn’t hurt us to stand—so we ran down the street and encouraged them to come back. I’d like to think that somehow the act of giving up our spot shamed the interlopers, but they were entirely oblivious.

The problem with evil

When I think back on my life’s biggest regrets, they all have to do with my inability to consider others above myself.

As we stood there on the sidewalk watching the parade, I got to thinking about the whole situation. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that big of a deal, but it felt to me like I’d just witnessed something significant.

Most evil isn’t done with malicious intent—it’s often just self-absorbed people unaware of the needs and well-being of those around them. Driven to satisfy raw emotions like desire, fear, and lust, we disregard (or refuse to consider) the ways our behavior affects others. On a micro level it looks like stealing a family’s spot at a Christmas parade, but on a macro level it might look like a company making record-breaking profits and paying their employees poverty wages.

When Jesus encourages his followers to be the servants of all (Mk 9:35), he isn’t just talking about the act of serving each other. He’s addressing the way we consider and intuit each others needs. A good steward doesn’t elevate their personal ambition, need to acquire, or self preservation above every other consideration. When I think back on my life’s biggest regrets, they all have to do with my inability to consider others above myself.

What’s tragic is how quickly individual selfishness becomes systemic evil. When self-obsessed people incorporate, they create organizations, businesses, and countries that are capable of justifying great evil.

Our definition of evil

I am convinced that part of the problem is that we don’t see our selfish behavior as evil. Evil’s a word we reserve for terrible things like murder or rape. Going to a concert and laying out personal items to over thirty chairs in the front to reserve them for my friends isn’t . . . evil. It’s just . . . you know . . . I just wanted them.

Maybe we won’t really make any movement forward until we see the way we elevate ourselves over others as part of evil’s DNA. Murder, rape, racism, and exploitation are the extreme versions of the little evils we perpetrate daily.

Why evil always seems to be winning

I don’t enjoy going to the movies that much anymore. I always end up sitting by people who won’t shut up, refuse to turn off their phones, or are generally unaware that they’re not at home watching television.

When I was a kid you could count on public censure to keep you in line when you didn’t have the self-discipline to do it yourself. If I was acting up in a theater, I knew the crowd would collectively shush me. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

When that group began crowding out the family on the sidewalk, the family was faced with a choice. Would they speak up? Because they chose not to make a scene, their space was absorbed by these people who were aggressive enough to take it. Truth be told, because I didn’t say anything these people were allowed to move in a stake their claim.

I am convinced that a lot of good is left undone because good people don’t want to make a scene. In fact, I think we’re encouraged not to. This is a tragedy because many people, driven by their passions, are unhindered by social expectations and niceties when it comes to satisfying their desires. The silence of good people not only doesn’t give them an opportunity to check themselves and their emotions, it tacitly condones their behavior.

This isn’t peacemaking—it’s peace keeping. There’s a huge difference.

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