[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
One of the distinctive features of A Course in Miracles is how extreme and absolute its worldview is. You can see this, for instance, in its depiction of human nature. It presents two sides to human beings which could not possibly be more different from each other. One side is pure evil, and one side is pure goodness. Fortunately, though, the Course also tells us that only the good side is real; only the good side is our true nature. And there is nothing whatsoever stopping us from choosing the good side with all our hearts, and thus living lives of extraordinary goodness right here and right now.
Some Course students may take issue with elements of that last paragraph, saying that there cannot be evil, and human nature cannot have an evil side because what we call “evil” is unreal. I absolutely agree that evil is unreal, and therefore it is only a mistake to be forgiven, not a sin to be punished. But let me explain what I mean here. When I speak of “evil” I simply mean malevolence, which as one of my dictionary says, is “wishing evil or harm to another or others; showing ill will; ill-disposed; malicious.” It is the inclination to harm others for the sake of selfish gain. The Course says that “What is not happiness is evil” (W-pI.66.6:3), so by that standard, any inclination or action that aims to take away anyone’s happiness is evil. This inclination and its results do exist in our experience in this world, regardless of the ultimate reality status of the inclination.
In the similar vein, when I speak of human nature having an evil side, I’m using the term “human nature” to mean, as my dictionary puts it, “the general psychological characteristics, feelings, and behavioral traits of humankind, regarded as shared by all humans.” And the character trait of evil – the inclination to harm others for the sake of selfish gain – does exist in our human nature, again regardless of the ultimate reality status of that trait. True, the ultimate purpose of the Course is to help us remove the illusory evil side of our human nature, so that only our good true nature, our eternal nature as holy Sons of God, will remain. Our true nature is emphatically not evil. But until that process of removing the illusion is completed, both sides exist as traits within us in our current state.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at the two sides of our human nature. On the one hand, we have the ego, which in the Course’s view is absolutely, unequivocally dark. The Course calls the ego “the evil self I made” (W-pII.303.2:2). And evil it is, for at the heart of the ego is pure malevolence: it has such “evil intentions” that it “wishes no one well” (T-15.VII.4:3-4). It is soaked with the desire to attack others and harm them purely for selfish gain – the very definition of evil. The ego’s goal is to preserve its own specialness, and “What can specialness delight in but to kill?” (T-24.V.4:3). The Course tells us, “It is so crucial that you look upon your hatred and realize its full extent” (T-13.III.1:1). It even says the ego is what we call the “devil”: “The mind can make the belief in separation [the ego] very real and very fearful, and this belief is the ‘devil.’ It is powerful, active, destructive and clearly in opposition to God” (T-3.VII.5:1).
On the other hand, we have our true Self, which is as absolutely bright with goodness as the ego is absolutely dark with evil. In the Course’s view, we are nothing less than holy Sons of God, a title normally reserved for Jesus, the pinnacle of human (and divine) goodness in the West. Of our true Self, the Course says, “My true Identity is so secure, so lofty, sinless, glorious and great, wholly beneficent and free from guilt, that Heaven looks to It to give it light. It lights the world as well” (W-pII.224.1:1-2). In another glowing passage about our true Self, the Course says:
My Self is holy beyond all the thoughts of holiness of which I now conceive. Its shimmering and perfect purity is far more brilliant than is any light that I have ever looked upon. Its love is limitless, with an intensity that holds all things within it, in the calm of quiet certainty. Its strength comes not from burning impulses which move the world, but from the boundless Love of God Himself. (W-pII.252.1:1-4)
Really let that into your heart. In truth, we are beings of absolute, pristine, pure, loving goodness. And the goodness of our true Self doesn’t just exist in some remote ethereal realm that has no impact on our day to day lives. It is something that, like our evil side, we can and do express in this world with every truly loving thought, word, and deed. As the passage from Lesson 224 says, our true Identity not only lights up Heaven, but “lights up the world as well.”
The great paradox of human beings is that we have both this absolute evil and this absolute goodness within us, side by side. Again, from the Course’s standpoint, only the good side is ultimately real. But both sides are active in our current experience, and every instant we are choosing between them. Therefore, while we tend to divide the world into “good” people and “evil” people, with ourselves inevitably among the “good” people, the real division is not outside, but within. As Soviet Gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said: “The line separating good and evil is drawn through the human heart.”
Is this true? Do we really have such stark extremes within our own hearts? It is a bold claim, and it is hard to know for sure how true that claim is. But I think one line of evidence for the truth of this can be found in human mass movements, both evil and good. I think we can see that, when the conditions are right, large numbers of ordinary people can act in both extraordinarily evil and extraordinarily good ways. This suggests that the potential for both exists in us, just waiting to be unleashed.
First, the evil side: Normally, when some great evil happens, we condemn those who do it as “psychopaths.” And it seems likely that some and perhaps even most of the leaders who instigate mass evils, like Hitler and Stalin, meet the clinical definition of psychopathology (a specific mental disorder that today can be revealed by brain scans). But when people commit evil in large groups, as in Nazi Germany and Rwanda, it simply can’t be true that all or even many of them are psychopaths in that clinical sense, though the Course would no doubt regard them as insane, as it regards all of us. We want to distance ourselves when we hear stories of people like the man who stalked Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza saying, “”I have killed 399 cockroaches [Tutsi people]. Immaculée will make 400. It’s a good number to kill.” But most of them were ordinary people just like you and me.
Psychological experiments have repeatedly demonstrated the tendency of ordinary people to do horrible things when an authority figure gives them license to do so. Stanley Milgram conducted a well-known experiment in which most subjects delivered “dangerous” and even “fatal” electric shocks to others (without knowing that the shocks weren’t real) when the experimenter told them to do so. Philip Zimbardo conducted a well-known “prison” experiment in which ordinary students were divided into “guards” and “prisoners,” with Zimbardo giving the “guards” free rein to do whatever they wanted. The planned two-week experiment had to be discontinued after six days because the guards had become so sadistic. All of this suggests that ordinary people have the potential for great evil, and under the right conditions, it can come out.
Second, the good side: Normally, when some amazing good happens, we proclaim those who do it to be “saints.” And no doubt many of the great leaders who inspire mass movements of love and goodness, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., exhibit saintly qualities (which doesn’t mean they’re perfect – simply that they exhibit extraordinary love). But when people do good in large groups, as in the Indian independence movement and the civil rights movement in the United States, it simply can’t be true that all of them are saints. We say “I could never do that” when we read of a man like “Wild Bill Cody” (as Allied troops called him) who, after the Nazis killed his wife and five children and sent him a concentration camp, devoted his time in the camp to being truly helpful to prisoners and Germans alike, fulfilling his vow to “spend the rest of my life – whether it was a few days or many years – loving every person I came in contact with.” But most of these people, too, were ordinary people like you and me.
While I don’t know of any psychological experiments testing whether we will do incredibly loving things when an authority figure tells us to do so, we of course have examples like the great leaders above. And I do know of a number of experiments that have demonstrated the existence of “pure altruism” in us – desiring and working for the good fortune of others even we don’t stand to gain anything tangible from it. Ulrich Mayr conducted a study using brain scans to measure subjects’ pleasure when other people experienced good fortune, and concluded, “The most surprising result is that these basic pleasure centers in the brain don’t respond only to what’s good for yourself. They also seem to be tracking what’s good for other people, and this occurs even when the subjects don’t have a say in what happens.” All of this suggests that, just as we all have the potential for great evil, we also have the potential for great good, and under the right conditions, it can come out.
The problem with both the “psychopath” and the “saint” labels is that they distance us from our own potential on both sides. We tell ourselves that we couldn’t possibly be as evil as that psychopath over there, and we couldn’t possibly be as good as that saint over there. And I think this is one reason why people can both do much more evil than they ever thought possible, and not do as much good as really is possible. Denying the potential for evil in themselves can lead them to do evil in the name of doing “good.” Denying the potential for extraordinary goodness in themselves can lead them to turn away from the call to do good in the name of being “realistic.”
So what unleashes these potentials? What lifts the normal constraints? As we’ve seen, one factor that seems to prompt people to do either great evil or great good is a leader, an authority figure who gives them “permission” and or inspiration (negative or positive) to express that part of their nature. On the evil side, we see this in people’s willingness to follow leaders such as Hitler and the government of Rwanda (who incited the genocide through the media). In the case of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments, we see the people’s willingness to follow the researcher as authority figure, who in both cases gave them free rein to do whatever they wanted. On the good side, of course, we see this in people’s willingness to follow inspiring leaders like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Desmond Tutu, etc.
This is very much in accord with the Course’s emphasis on the power of teaching. On the evil side, we have all seen the devastating effects of powerful, charismatic, ego-ridden teachers. On the good side, Jesus once said to Helen and Bill that the value of the teaching role is immense, and that is why “it was one to which I very gladly dedicated my own life.” That is why, in the words of the Course, “the plan of the teachers was established” (M-1.2:10) to bring about the salvation of the world. Great teachers, like the author of A Course in Miracles himself and the spiritual path he has blessed us with, can have a dramatic impact on which way people go.
I don’t think this means that a great teacher or charismatic leader is required for these potentials to be unleashed. Obviously, there are many people who, like “Wild Bill Cody,” simply decide for themselves to unleash their goodness. And even when teaching is involved, it needn’t come from some great, charismatic figure; it can come in ordinary ways from ordinary people. Interestingly, in follow-ups to Milgram’s first experiment, he discovered that most people would not administer the severe shocks when they were in the presence of other people who refused to do it. The Course says that “Everyone teaches, and teaches all the time” (T-6.In.2:2). We have a significant influence on each other, for good or for ill.
The good news, though, is that we don’t have to wait for a charismatic leader or even the influence of other ordinary people. We have a choice, a choice we can make right now. We can choose which side of our human nature to commit to, cultivate, and unleash in the world. We can choose, moment by moment, to live lives of extraordinary goodness. We can choose which leaders to follow and, if no good leaders are available, we can choose to become good leaders, with God’s help. We may say that we’re not capable of such goodness, like the near-death experiencer who, during an encounter with God, told Him that she couldn’t love like Him because “it is impossible…I am just a human, you are God.” But it is not impossible. As God gently replied to her, “You can do better.”
And the best news of all, in my mind, is that only the good side as real. Yes, in this piece I’ve spoken of human nature having both sides, but thank God that only the good side is our true nature. I think this is the best news we could hear, for at least three reasons I can think of. One, it means that, however much we may feel tempted to give in to the little “devil” whispering in our left ear, our goodness is ultimately easier to choose, because it is the truth about us and is our true will. Two, our goodness is God’s Will as well as our own, and therefore all of His power is behind our choice for goodness. Third, precisely because goodness is our true nature and is God’s Will, it will ultimately prevail. “A happy outcome to all things is sure” (W-pII.292.Heading).
So why wait? Why not start today on the road to a life of extraordinary goodness? Why not heed the words of Desmond Tutu who, when in a church surrounded by riot police of the South African apartheid regime, said to the police officers, “come and join the winning side” – not a particular human side, but the side of goodness itself? Why not unleash our extraordinary goodness right now?