It was game five of the Fall Classic, and I settled into my recliner to await the first pitch. After watching Houston storm back from a 0-2 series deficit, I was looking forward to Gerrit Cole’s second outing. Of course, the pomp and circumstance of the pregame rituals would come first, this time with an added twist: Donald Trump was making a surprise appearance at Nationals Park, and upon his introduction he was greeted with a thunderous roar of boos, hisses and unrepeatable execrations.
And I loved every second of it.
Finally, I thought, a man of such egregious moral turpitude was taking his medicine. I was so elated that I literally cupped my hands to my mouth for added projection as I joined the chorus of boos from my living room.
But shortly afterward, I was caught off guard by a stricken conscience. It wasn’t really the boos that bothered me. Nor was my conscience stirred by trite appeals to “civility” or “respecting the office of the president.” Rather, it was my desire to inflict pain – or my pleasure in watching others do so (what psychologists refer to as schadenfreude ) – that troubled my spirit. Perhaps Trump supporters have felt a similar conviction in other instances. I hope so.
“If you look into the abyss long enough, it will drain every bit of hope from your soul.”
There’s a common injunction that features prominently in news headlines and on social media: “Don’t look away.” And it’s a necessary exhortation, reminding us of the dangers of apathy and indifference. Most importantly, this moral imperative reminds us that a lack of vigilance can make us oblivious to the ways in which our political environment can change us for the worse.
But an ironic danger lurks beneath the surface. It’s the danger of an unbridled vigilance that draws us so deeply into the abyss that we become the very thing we intend to combat. I believe this is what happened to me, and I believe it can happen to any of us.
Saint Augustine is instructive on this point. In his brilliant treatment of evil, he suggests that evil is not a thing at all, but an absence, a lack, a privation of what’s good and beautiful. Evil is an absurdity that evades comprehension while destroying those who dare to study its devices. When we give our undivided attention to this senseless void, it gradually eats away at our noble dispositions, causing our spiritual muscles to atrophy.
Nobody should look into the void without armor. If they try, they’ll get sucked into a vacuous hole where evil feeds on their humanity like a parasite.
This is true not just for the Hitlers of the world, but for people of utmost integrity and compassion. Naturally, people of goodwill are grieved when harmful policies affect their neighbors, but terrible things can happen when they give undue attention to evil. It’s one thing to offer prophetic diagnoses of structural sins, drawing insight from the Holy Spirit. It’s quite another to preoccupy ourselves with evil, fixing our attention on something – or some non-thing – that operates like a flesh-eating worm on a fishhook. When we take the bait, it destroys us from the inside, drawing us into nothingness while gaining energy from the attention we grant it.
Among the consequences of this unhealthy fixation are demoralization, cynicism and despair. As a parasite, evil drains us of our energy, inducing fatigue and lulling us to sleep. The media contribute to this sense of demoralization by churning out so much bad news that we’re left feeling powerless, which can lead to apathy and despair. If you look into the abyss long enough, it will drain every bit of hope from your soul, leaving nothing but a cynical shell, a hollow vestige of a person who once believed the world could be better than it currently is.
“In this age of corruption and treachery, prudence will be the way forward.”
The philosopher Hannah Arendt understood this well. When she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German SS officer, she was disarmed by his ordinary character. He was not a wicked person, she opined, but a family man who was swept away by the stupor-inducing tide of a totalitarian regime. Evil had become so ubiquitous that ordinary people – even church-going people – became passive to their political environment, unable to tell the difference between right and wrong. Such thoughtless passivity inspired her to write about evil’s “banality.”
People with good intentions are not impervious to such passivity. Indeed, there’s nothing more passive than cynicism and despair, those nihilistic vices that develop when hyper-vigilance launches us into the void. Do these vices not leave us vulnerable to the sinister effects of our political environment? What kind of anemic “resistance” is cynicism?
In this age of corruption and treachery, prudence will be the way forward. As Josef Pieper, the late Catholic philosopher, wrote, “None but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good man is good insofar as he is prudent.” This age calls for justice and bravery, but these virtues must be governed by tremendous caution. We are responsible for the welfare of our neighbors, and we must never callously look away from the harm being done to them. But prudence recognizes the inherent danger of this looking, and it charts a course between the horns of indifference and zealotry.
This path involves the cultivation of spiritual discipline and good character. Indeed, rigorous self-examination is necessary if we hope to withstand an ethos of banal evil, lest we find ourselves standing in front of the television, jeering at the screen with vengeance in our hearts.