>So here’s a question to ponder on this cold Pennsylvania morning: Are we naturally good or evil? Naughty or nice? Human beings, the most highly evolved of all life forms—or so we like to think—perform acts both of great generosity and of soul-crushing malfeasance. To which are we drawn by our very nature?
My mother had a strict no-swearing policy in our home, a rule which I followed without question. But I distinctly remember hiding under my bed as a little girl to practice my cussing. Safe from Mom’s ears, I honed a vast vocabulary of profanity that by junior high school would prove immensely valuable. And yet, I still rarely swear in my mother’s presence because she would find it offensive.
When my own children were little, I schooled them on how to behave like civilized people. But my lessons certainly didn’t stop them from drawing on the furniture with markers, taking things that were not theirs to take, and telling fibs. Some days I marveled at the ease with which they found ways to get into trouble. Why did they require so much guidance in the direction of being good, while seeking mischief seemed to come as naturally to them as drawing a breath?
The Bible makes frequent reference to man’s tendency toward evil, and Christians say only the grace of God and the desire to avoid His retribution allow us to rise above our nasty inclinations. We are evil; fear makes us good. Others claim humans are neither good nor bad, but capable of justifying all their behaviors by citing the circumstances that led them. Humans are mutable, capable of going either way.
Let’s go back to my mother for a moment—she of the no swearing rule. Ask Mom, and she’ll tell you without hesitation that people are basically good. Sure they mess up, what with human nature, free will, and all, but their kind hearts and righteous intentions will always return them to a straight path. And isn’t it glorious?
Then there’s my husband; one of the most decent men on the planet, he is just as adamant in his belief that we humans are basically bad news. We direct ourselves to positive behaviors, but left to our own devices will always follow our baser, animal tendencies. After all, he says, only a conscience separates us from the other animals.
To be sure, I have witnessed a great deal of meanness lately—meanness that opened wide and threatened to swallow me whole. And as I stared into that gaping maw, I felt the presence of those two people, cartoonlike, one on each shoulder. To the right was Mom, reminding me to forgive and forget, using comforting words to assure me that a cushion of good will and loving support was right there to break my fall. To the left was my husband, warning me to take off my blasted rose-colored glasses and see the world for all its harshness. Get a crust! Grow a pair! And don’t let the bastards win! Sure, there are good people among us, but assume the worst until someone proves himself worthy of trust. Once identified, those friends are to be thought of as buried treasure—rare, but priceless, and to be guarded with your very life.
The Zen philosophy assimilates Taoist concepts of cause and effect, the struggle between right and wrong. Zen, like Taoism, understands that Right and Wrong depend so much on the view of the observer or practitioner, and embraces Harmony in all things.
In Disney’s 1940 animated film Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket acts as Pinocchio’s conscience and guides the wooden puppet on his quest to become a real boy. To do so, Pinocchio must prove himself capable of telling right from wrong. Without Jiminy’s frequent interventions, Pinocchio might never have become human. But are we to believe that, once made flesh and blood, Pinocchio never again chose to do wrong? That truly would be a fairy tale.