Imagine that we as a country dedicated ourselves to truth, honesty and integrity; to being fair-minded, trustworthy and ethical; to lifelong learning — embracing arts and sciences.
Imagine that we often expressed gratitude, welcoming the mystery of grace; that we acted with kindness; that we felt compassion, humility and steadfast love.
We seldom hear about spiritual virtues like these, but we should.
I drew this list from a rarely recognized book, “The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth.” Written by M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist, it appeared in 1978 and became a bestseller. He writes about helping his patients and readers lead meaningful lives.
For Peck, however, we can’t understand spiritual growth without also understanding its opposite. This inspired him to write a second book, “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil,” appearing in 1983. He argues that evil is not demonic; it is a mental illness that can be treated. He defines evil as using power “to destroy the spiritual growth of others” to defend and preserve “one’s sick self.”
We might assume that evil pertains to other people — not ourselves. But before we judge someone with the E word, we should judge ourselves, Peck cautions. “We all have a sick self and a healthy self.” The tensions between them generate much of who we are.
To help us understand evil, Peck examines key behaviors that “people of the lie” share. His comments about them resonate today:
Foremost, they lie — not only to others but also to themselves. Therapists who treat them “feel overwhelmed by the labyrinthine mass of lies and twisted motives and distorted communication.”
They scapegoat. “They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection.”
They are narcissistic. This diminishes their “capacity for empathy,” which allows them “to ignore the humanity of their victims.”
They enjoy “intellectual deviousness,” insisting on affirmation despite factual evidence.
They incite “hatred for foreigners or the ‘enemy.’”
Peck provides a clear outline of destructive behaviors. We have witnessed some of them in others and ourselves. But what can be done about people of the lie?
His answers are paradoxical.
One, we should stop accepting their pretense. Yet they are experts at persuading their target audience, making untruths sound powerfully true.
Two, we should strive to “heal or contain” them. Heal how? Through psychotherapy — yet they rarely enter therapy because they deny having problems. Love heals, Peck maintains, drawing on his Christian faith — yet to love people of the lie requires “an almost godlike compassion.”
How might we contain them? Surrounding them with goodness and love helps. Yet those who interact closely with people of the lie “may become evil” themselves and sustain the lies.
There are no satisfying answers. Yet if evil is a mental illness, as Peck claims, we should investigate it scientifically like other illnesses such as schizophrenia. Research on evil can develop knowledge about causes, effects and treatments.
In our time of fake news, alternative facts and “truth isn’t truth,” “The Road Less Traveled” provides a counter paradigm — a way forward that has guided our country before. We need to learn more about spiritual growth. We need to learn more about evil. And we need to learn more about the paradoxical tensions between them.
As we try to love people of the lie, we must “fight against evil in the world.” Fighting against evil generates spiritual growth.
William Palmer is a professor emeritus of English at Alma College in Michigan and the author of “Discovering Arguments.”
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