Where would the world of stories be without evil characters? With half-empty bookshelves and half-empty screens is where. Aside from characters looking for love, the struggle of Good vs. Evil is the foundation for easily half the stories ever told, if not more. And for good reason. If, like our dreams, every character in a story is actually ourselves, and the quest to free ourselves from the veil of fear is often life-long, then Good vs. Evil becomes the story of our lives. There is a certain misconception around evil, however, and while stories didn’t create this misconception, they can sometimes promote it. The misconception is that evil exists, that it is like a strain of bacteria infecting certain individuals or societies. And sometimes, if you have a particularly bad case of the evils, like the villains of our stories you must be destroyed – or at least quarantined permanently.
If evil was a bacteria, then at least we could test someone for it. Sorry, Mr. Hitler, you have contracted a virulent and highly contagious strain of evil. What color shall we paint your cell? Unfortunately, all we have to go on is behavior. Of course certain behavior definitely looks evil, doesn’t it? In China at the moment there is a bizarre rash of middle-aged men attacking schools with knives and axes. Then there is Hitler, and Stalin, and the Ku Klux Klan, and Saddam Hussein. Evil, evil, evil, evil.
Except all behavior is driven by thoughts, by thoughts of fear or thoughts of love, and thoughts change, as we have all experienced countless times in our lives. The evil characters our heroes overcome in our stories represent the journey we take in our own day-to-day, grocery-store-and-post-office existence to change the fearful thought, “I can’t,” to the compassionate thought, “I can.” So too can villains of the real world change their thoughts.
Could Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein have been redeemed? Perhaps not. Perhaps for these men they could only awaken from their nightmare through the portal of death. But I listened once to the story of how a black Southern minister’s stubborn insistence not to hate or fear the Klan moved at least one man to hang up his white robe. Evil is just the name we give to fear in action. Evil cannot be destroyed or inoculated, it can only be disbelieved.