Christians call it original sin — the inclination to do evil that resides in all humans. This is our supposed inheritance from Adam and Eve for their initial act of disobedience. As a result, we spend our lives trying to be righteous, but often are too easily seduced by pride, greed, lust, anger or any number of other human frailties. This is despite the fact that we all have a moral GPS inside our head telling us which way to turn to find goodness. We call this compass our conscience.
C.S. Lewis, British writer and lay theologian, ascribes this phenomenon to Dualism, "the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war." Many cultures believe the "bad" became incarnate in the person of Satan. Regardless, there is no denying the evil that stalks the world, from the petty theft of an ATV in Hampstead to an ISIS car bomb in Baghdad.
In each of us, the margin between good and evil is no more than a thin veneer that can be broken through at any time. I am still embarrassed by an episode that took place at Memorial Stadium many years ago. It was bat day, and each kid was awarded a small Orioles-branded bat upon entry to the park. Mid-game I took my son to get a hot dog. When we returned to our seats, someone had stolen his bat that he'd left behind. He was tearful; I was angry, and so I stormed to one of the park entrances where a young attendant stood with a box full of bats. When I told him what had happened, he refused to give me another bat saying, "One per kid." After a few moments of pleading, I impulsively grabbed him by the neck and demanded a bat. He complied, but I walked away visibly shaken. I was at first shocked at my cruel, out-of-character action, and then relieved that I hadn't deservedly been arrested for assault.
Psychologists as diverse as C.G. Jung and Rollo May have written about these darker impulses that dwell just below the surface of our psyches. They call them our personal shadows, and our lives are spent in hand-to-hand combat with them as we strive to do the right thing.
I couldn't help but think of our shadow selves when I read that a speaker at a Black Lives Matters rally in Portland, Oregon, openly and profanely called for killing police. Hillary Clinton's personal shadow motivates her to dissemble about sending or receiving classified emails via her private server in the face of FBI evidence to the contrary.
Donald Trump rallies have had more than their share of shadow manifestations. Attendees regularly engage in racial and ethnic slurs and use misogynistic language against Clinton. Slate's Ben Mathis-Lilley has kept a score card that tallies 20 violent incidents by Trump supporters, including sucker-punching and choking protesters and knocking them to the ground. The New York Times has documented much of this with an online video montage of shadow behavior and language that cannot be transcribed for this family newspaper. Unfortunately, the crowds have taken their marching orders from the candidate himself who has used exhortations like, "knock the crap out of them" and "I'd like to punch him in the face."
Khizr Khan, the father of a U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq, was vilified by Trump in a series of tweets after speaking at the Democratic convention. He told "Meet the Press" that Trump is "without a moral compass." Stand-up comic Elise Valderrama has had trouble making light of Trump's candidacy because he recognizes his own shadow self in the candidate. He offered, "I think it's because Donald Trump is the part of us we hate the most. That part that's completely narcissistic and sociopathic almost. There's a part of us that is very thin-skinned, wants to get attention and can't take a joke."
With increasing talk about a rigged election and the potentially bloody turmoil that would follow a Trump loss, I've grown fearful for our republic. Abraham Lincoln once hoped to mend the fissure of civil war by appealing to "the better angels of our nature." May those angels triumph during this morally challenged election season.
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Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.