Good and evil: order and entropy. The first is a story about God and morality and the devil and sin. It is a story that tells us what is right and what is wrong; how to act and how to be. The second, too, is a story about right and wrong and acting and being, but instead of metaphysical speculation, it grounds itself in science and progress and the unforgiving Universe and decay.
We see a version of this story — however innocent — play out anytime we set ourselves up to compete, to engage in a Me vs. Him or a Us vs. Them battle. For something to exist clearly in one form, it has to contrast itself with something that it is clearly not. It doesn’t focus on what is similar, but rather, it goes out of its way to conjure up differences. This kind of competition is what has driven our species to become what it is. Without competition, without something to fight against as a way to fight for something else, it’s hard to find a solid ground to stand on, and it’s hard to incentivize behavior, and it’s hard to make sense of the daily demands of reality.
When we use this aspect of our programming to fight some objective force of nature, say, like a deadly hurricane, or indeed entropy itself on the scale of the physical Universe, we mobilize the best of our capabilities. We work together. We build things. We connect. Not only that but when the enemy is a real, tangible thing, our certainty of the fact that it is indeed the villain of the story, without any reasonable doubt, is a source of both individual and collective strength. We are doing the right thing, and that is a good thing, and knowing that clarifies our course of action.
The problem, however, arises when this part of our mentality is applied in the social or the political arena, when the competition isn’t some objective process or thing but groups of other people banded together. Worse yet, in most of these instances, what is good and what is evil isn’t objectively clear because it stems from subjectivity itself. We are all very charitable when we think of our own beliefs, convincing ourselves that what we stand for is good and right and honest and that the other side is filled with people who are bad and wrong and dishonest. But when was the last time you actually met someone you disagreed with who claimed that they were fighting for evil or for entropy? Even the people we think of as the worst of the worst think they are doing the right thing, the noble thing, the important thing. Most of them, in fact, are people like you, with their own families, frustrations, and joys. We only forget all of this because we are so caught up in the self-centeredness of our own experiences.
The majority of the most insidious things that have been done in human history were done by people who thought they were fighting for good or for order as a part of a group against another group. Many of them even began banding together out of frustrations that most of us are familiar with. Many of them, in fact, claimed to represent causes whose premise most of us would broadly agree with, regardless of religious belief or political orientation. How is it, then, that groups of people fighting against other groups can start off from a place of genuine concern but end up causing destruction and disorder on a mass scale? How can we reasonably take subjective sides between good and evil in the social and the political realm when it is not always clear what is truly good and evil? The answers have something to do with the relationship between identity and hate.
Identity is the glue that binds groups of people together. It is who I am when I decide to attach myself with a collective of individuals formed due to similarity in belief systems. Feminism is an identity. Being a Googler is an identity. The label Buddhist is an identity. Identity is different from the self. The self is the emotional relationship you have with your physical body, as defined by the linguistic concepts you use to make sense of reality. It is purely individual, and it is a personal experience. Identity is the projection of some part of this self into a larger, collective story shared with other people. In order for an identity to exist, there is always a need for opposition, whether that opposition is evil or disorder or simply another person, and that creates Us vs. Them narratives.
Naturally, it’s worth noting that many groups engaged in Us vs. Them battles aim for constructive resolution through healthy debate and criticism, but generally when identity is involved at scale, rather than resolution, the goal of the group slowly morphs away from doing what is seemingly right into whatever it takes to destroy Them because this collective identity has become more important than the agency and the autonomy of the self. I could make a long list of examples gathered from history to see this in action, but realistically, we need to look no further than Twitter or the current news cycle to see how unfruitful and dangerous these kinds of battles end up becoming.
Now, the reason that the self gives up its agency and autonomy for an identity is simple: When there is unresolved pain that hasn’t been observed and reconciled internally to a satisfactory degree, the self looks for another outlet of expression, finding the perfect vehicle in an identity that can blame someone else for that pain — that can hate someone else for that pain. In this sense, groups of collectives that fight each other are really projections of internal, individual traumas on scale. Hate is a second-order effect of repressed pain, and identity is the second-order effect of an unhealed self.
People who are exceptionally tribal in their social views and in their politics project their pain into an identity, valuing the supremacy of their subjectivity and its experience. But in the process of doing so, they negate the pain and the subjectivity of people on the other side who are essentially doing the same thing. They want to be seen, but in the process of absorbing themselves in their own self-centeredness of what is good and what is bad, they deny that same possibility to those on the opposite end, because hating both yourself and other people is far easier than dealing with your own pain and compassionately acknowledging the pain of someone who is completely different from you.
Even if some of the intentions and actions at the core of an identity leads to positive change in the short-term, the long-term effects generally negate those benefits in different ways. Channeling pain into hate may provide the starting momentum needed for a socially invisible frustration to be voiced, but that hate eventually spirals out of control until you become a version of exactly the kind of person who you thought you were fighting against. Nobody who actually commits evil thinks they are doing so until it’s too late. Everyone has their reason for taking action in a particular direction, and when these reasons are marinated in self-centered intentions masked by a collective label, the boundary between right and wrong starts to quickly blur.
In December of 2018, I sat down for my first 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. It’s a spiritual practice that seems to originate from the Theravada tradition of Buddhism prior to the 10th century, but its roots in the modern world can be traced to Burma some few hundred years ago. This particular organization was founded by S.N. Goenka. He also happens to be the teacher who instructs the practice via video recordings during the 10 days, where the aim of the students is to use their mind to refine their attention of the body until they can learn to see what is referred to as the true nature of reality.
There is nothing mystical or overly exotic about the retreat. You essentially sit still for two-thirds of the day to just experience your thoughts and the corresponding sensations that are present. There are no electronic devices to distract you. You can’t read. You can’t write. You can’t touch anyone. You can’t talk to anyone. It is an attempt to get as close to the veneer of the self as is possible in that time so that it is seen objectively for what it is rather than whatever ideas and attachment you have to it.
Every night during the retreat, after a full day of practice, all students gather in the meditation hall to listen to Goenka talk about the conceptual scaffolding that adds theoretical color to the raw experience of the Vipassana practice. He tells jokes. He explains experiences and sensations. He shares stories. And there is one story in particular that he told at some point in the middle of the retreat that I think about a lot when it comes to the relationship between self and identity, between curing our own ills and attempting to cure the ills of the world.
In the time of the Buddha, Goenka explained, there was apparently a King and a Queen who began to heed the Buddha’s teachings. They gave the Vipassana practice an honest go, digging deep into their narrative of self, their bodily sensations, and whatever pain and trauma they had accumulated over the course of life. One day, after years of shared practice, the Queen woke up next to the King and asked him a simple question: “Do you love me?” The King, taken back for a moment, thought about this, and to his surprise, answered that he didn’t. He only felt that he loved himself. The Queen, as it turned out, wasn’t too surprised by this and said that she felt the same way. At first, they were troubled by this development, but after further inquiry, they realized that their love of themselves was, in fact, the only thing that allowed them to share love with the world.
This story captures a cliche but illustrates something profound and important: We all live in separate bodies with distinct experiences of reality. And these experiences are filled with different kinds of pain and suffering that nobody can deal with but us. Before we learn to accept this simple fact and experience the love, compassion, and responsibility that comes with that, we can’t hope to positively impact the world. If inner pain isn’t dealt with, it subtly turns into hate and gets projected outward. You may think that you are doing something selfless by reducing the agency of the self in the name of some larger identity, but the truth is that you’re just scared to face your own pain because the spiral of hate is easier and more comforting than the alternative.
Groups of people gathered for a collective goal can accomplish incredible things, and using identity as a means to do that is an important strategical tool. But that identity should be no more than an association. As soon as the attachment to an identity is placed above the agency of a healed self, intentions get clouded and actions become needlessly competitive when they should instead be integrative. In our attempt to be seen, we begin to negate others. And so, it turns that another often repeated cliche is more true than it seems at first glance: Before you go out to change the world, do the work to change yourself.