I remember the words, “Each person is the protagonist of her own story.” It was at a writer’s conference, and I listened to the author discussing her work, about how one of her favorite childhood stories–the Mexican variant of “Snow White and Rose Red” became the text which she destroyed in a book as an adult. This story, she apparently decided, was racist, and favored light skinned people over dark skinned people, because though both sisters–passive, fair-skinned Snow White and active, rosy hued Rose Red– are usually regarded as the heroines of the story, only one gets to marry the Bear Prince, and this is Snow White. Now, I guess a person could ask whether it would be better if the Bear Prince married both sisters. Yet in this story which this woman loved as a child, all she could see as an adult was the flaw of being a classic Grimm fairy tale which condemned Rose Red to marrying the Bear Prince’s brother, who entered the story late so Rose Red could have someone to marry.
Now, truthfully, I don’t know how she could do it. I have stories I loved as a child, and I could not want to condemn them as wrong, illegitimate ways of looking at the world. One of them, incidentally, was “Snow White and Rose Red” from The Gem Fairy Tales, a book of retold traditional fairy tales. Yet even on the face of it I question her assumption: Are we really always the protagonists of our own stories, always doing right in our own eyes. If this were so, even Hitler, killing six million Jews and six million other people, could be deluded enough to see himself as “right.” And this reminds me of the name of a book this author mentioned called “Dark Triumph,” making one think how Hitler got remarkably close to achieving his goal where the Jews were concerned–most of the European Jewry was destroyed, and a third of the Jews worldwide.
Which leads to my point. I am not always the protagonist of my own life. I know that I have massacred no innocents, and yet I cannot see that in my own mind I have always lived the good life I was meant to live. I have come closer as I have lived onwards, but particular in my childhood, with Major Depression and inclined to be lazy, I am not sure I was always the heroine of my own story. Yes, there have been times when I did “come short of the glory of God,” though as a Jew I am not bound by a belief in Original Sin per se. This is even though, working at a mental health club, many of the patients there look up to me. Ha! If they only knew! There was a time when I had their problems, and it was only pills, therapy, and a lot of hard work that I got any better. They do not know it, but it is because I recognize my own failings that I can feel sorry for theirs.
Philosophically I know “evil” is hard to define. Christianity defines it as “Pride” whereas Buddhism defines it as “Selfishness.” Hinduism defines it as the failure to do one’s “duty” and though this is too often associated with caste, Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by this philosophy of Dharma. In Judaism, evil is a necessary part of existence, whereas I believe other religions teach that it’s acceptance leads only to moral corruption. All of these views probably have an element of truth.
Historian Norman Davies described St. Augustine as a “religious libertine,” for the immoral behavior he celebrates and condemns in his Confessions. Yet there is a sense in which St. Augustine is no fool. Elsewhere describing evil as the “absence of good,” he mentions in his writing a time when he was a child when he stole an apple from an orchard, enjoying the trick he played against the owner of the orchard, and the fact that the act was theft. Now a Catholic philosophy teacher I had explained that though small, this act was the epitome of what was wrong with human nature. And perhaps he was right.
In my own childhood, I did something similar to Augustine. I was with my family at the Botanical Gardens one day when I was ten years old. I noticed there was a wishing well, but also that there were candy and soda pop machines. Well, I knew my mother and stepfather would not give me the money to buy the candy and soda pop I wanted. So I took money from the wishing well, and bought my Dr. Pepper and two candy bars with that. There were even some other children there whom I offered to help steal, too, but virtuously they refrained from taking part in my evil deed. They did not, however, turn me in. Now, years later I hoped to make recompense to the Botanical Gardens for what I did and I made a gift of some fifty dollars to the organization. Yet they insisted on giving me recognition for the gift. I was very disappointed, because to receive the gift meant I had not paid back the wicked deed I had done as a child. That deed has never truly been undone, and I consider it in once sense a very wicked deed: I was so delighted at the time that I had done an evil deed, and that I had gotten away with it.
Now, I admit that I have not done any stealing since. More, Judaism does not teach that wicked deeds cannot be undone–through fasting and prayer on Yom Kippur, and through apologizing to the person wronged. Yet in terms of “evil deeds” stealing enough money for a can of Dr. Pepper and a candy bar (I forget which kind), may seem petty–and yet the small sin committed by a ten year old does have something in common with the larger sin committed by a bank robber. Both of us want what is not legitimately ours. Of course, I have probably even done worse things since. Yet there is a simplicity to that theft that illustrates sin. And there was a since in which stealing I became my own antagonist. Wicked people bring unhappiness upon themselves.
It is by conquering oneself that one becomes good. I know that “conquest” is a military term, that for some of us–and I was one–I had to accept that I was human before I could–to quote God to Cain in the King James Version of the Bible:
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
A human can rule over her evil impulse. Yet this can be a difficult act, not one to be taken lightly. As it is, in modern times people too often believe that it is easy to be good. That there are not times when hard work involves pain, or when forgiveness involves the heart and not just the head. I remember I had a psychiatrist who did me very little good, because I remember having a “eureka” moment once when I thought I finally understood my psychological problems. And then I left the office, but when I came back, what we discussed was forgotten, and not even I can say what it was we discussed, or if it did me any good. I did discover, true enough, that as a human I had “evil impulses” that I could not simply condemn and they would go away. Yet I also discovered that in learning self-love I also had to learn self-discipline. I know as an adult I am a very hard worker, but as a child I tended towards laziness. I changed because I structured my time so that I did the things “I would need to get done first,” then the things I needed to get done next, and finally the things I want. Structuring my time took more than that, but that was a beginning.
That is why if I could I would tell each member of the Breakthrough Club, the mental health club where I worked, that the Jewish philosopher Philo spoke the truth when he said, “Be Kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Yet to deny that it is possible for a person to become their own antagonist risks sloth and laziness. Actually, it risks worse flaws in one’s character, for if a person is honest, very few of us are flawlessly kind or honest or good. No, to become good is a battle and a journey, which a person should not tread on lightly.