The Wicked Witch Discusses Evil Over Dinner
Rev. Jill Ann Terwilliger
February 18, 2001
From Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man: It’s Genius For Good and Evil (pp. 173-178)
Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice of life. The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions, the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decisions, the more our heart softens – or better perhaps, comes alive . . . Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative, until eventually it becomes more difficult for me to chose the undesirable rather than the desirable action. On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost. Between the extreme when I can no longer do a wrong act and the extreme when I have lost my freedom to right action, there are innumerable degrees of freedom of choice. . . . Most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot lead a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. They are not aware when life asks them a question, and when they still have alternative answers. Then with each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they must go back to the first wrong turn, and must accept the fact that they have wasted energy and time.
From Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (pp. 370-371) This passage is a conversation about evil at a dinner party.
“Well, I stick with my suggestion,” said Avaric. “Evil isn’t doing bad things, it’s feeling bad about them afterward. There’s no absolute value to behavior . . .”
“[It’s] institutional inertia,” claimed the Witch. “But whatever is the great attraction of absolute power anyway?”
“That’s why I say it’s merely an affliction of the psyche, like vanity or greed,” said a copper magnate. “And we all know vanity and greed can produce some pretty astounding results in human affairs, not all of them reprehensible.”
“It’s an absence of good, that’s all,” said his [friend] . . . “The nature of the world is to be calm, and enhance and support life, and evil is an absence of the inclination of matter to be at peace.”
“Pigspittle,” said Avaric. “Evil is an early or primitive stage of moral development. All children are fiends by nature. The criminals among us are only those who didn’t progress . . .”
“I think it’s a presence not an absence,” said an artist. “Evil’s an incarnated character, an incubus or a succubus. It’s an other. It’s not us.” . . .
“Evil isn’t a thing, it’s not a person, it’s an attribute like beauty . . .”
“It’s a power, like wind . . .”
“It’s an infection . . .”
“It’s metaphysical, essentially; the corruptibility of creation”
“Blame it on . . . God, then.”
“But did . . . God create evil intentionally, or was it just a mistake in creation?”
“It’s not of air and eternity, evil isn’t; it’s of earth; it’s physical, a disjointedness between our bodies and our souls. Evil is inanely corporeal, humans causing one another pain, no more no less . . .”
“No, you’re all wrong, our childhood religion had it right: Evil is moral at its heart – the selection of vice over virtue; you can pretend not to know, you can rationalize, but you know it in your conscience.”
“Evil is an act, not an appetite. How many haven’t wanted to slash the throat of some boor across the dining room table? Present company excepted of course. Everyone has the appetite. If you give in to it, it, that act, is evil. The appetite is normal.”
“Oh no, evil is repressing that appetite. I never repress any appetite . . .”
“The real thing about evil,” said the Witch at the doorway, “isn’t any of what you said. You figure out one side of it – the human side, say – and the eternal side goes into shadow. Or vice versa. It’s like the old saw: What does a dragon in its shell look like? Well no one can ever tell, for as soon as you break the shell to see, the dragon is no longer in its shell. The real disaster of this inquiry is that it is the nature of evil to be secret.”
Hitler. The name, the man, is nearly synonymous with evil. I could hardly give a sermon about evil without mentioning Hitler so there’s the mention; I got it over with early. I don’t want to focus in this sermon about evil on Hitler and the Holocaust because that is the extreme, the obvious when it comes to evil. So evil they are hard to look at with any distance to try to understand what evil really is.
To look into the face of evil, lets look instead at some characters with a little less intensity, characters in the Wizard of Oz. If I were to choose one character from that story as evil, without putting too much though into it, I would probably choose the Wicked Witch of the West. It seems natural. Even her title declares that she is wicked. She has gained a reputation in all of Oz and when we meet her in the well known movie version of the story, she is trying to steal Dorothy’s magic shoes that were a gift from Glenda, the Good Witch of the North. Trying to steal shoes certainly does not in itself make a person evil, but this witch is pitted against the Good witch and it is clear what we are supposed to think. Besides, she dresses all in black and wears a big pointy hat. She must be on the dark side.
A few years ago novelist Gregory Maguire wrote a “re-imagining” of the tale of Oz called Wicked (this is where the reading came from). Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. We meet Elphaba – as he names the wicked witch – we meet her family actually, before she is born. We learn about her family life, her early childhood, and her community. We learn what kind of soil this woman who became the Wicked Witch of the West grew in.
Elphaba was born with a green hue to her skin, viciously sharp teeth, and a terrible fear of water. Her father was a minister who thought his daughter was a punishment for his failure as an evangelist. Her parents and other children shunned her. It only became worse as she grew older and her personality and features both sharpened.
Elphaba became politically active in boarding school, always casting her lot with the underdogs. Her father’s missionary work had taken her family to live with people maligned by the powerful elites in the Emerald City. She soon discovered that the head of her school, Madam Morrible, was working in close partnership with the Wizard to see that his power spread and that the adepts at her school would serve him, help him take control of all the independent regions of Oz. Elphaba resisted and joined an underground revolutionary group.
Besides Elphaba we meet other characters in more depth, too. There is the Wizard. A man who appeared in Oz in his hot-air balloon one day and dethroned their beloved queen, and became a not very benevolent ruler. His past remained a mystery to all of Oz while he hid behind his many different disguises. Elphaba eventually learns that he came to Oz on the run from people in his own world.
We meet Glenda, the Good Witch of the North, a school mate of Elphaba’s who marries well, puts on a shinning society face for everyone to see but underhandedly assists the Wizard’s quest for power.
So who is truly wicked? Who in Oz can we recognize as evil? If we understand the Wicked Witch of the West as a political radical, is it the Wizard who is truly the face of evil? Not that Elphaba was sweetness and light. She was difficult and caustic and not very trusting of others. She even attempted the murder of Madam Morrible, and many years later succeeded in doing so. But in killing someone who orchestrated a great deal of evil, perhaps Elphaba was doing more to preserve life than destroy it.
The simple polarity – good or evil – is difficult to maintain when we look at these characters from different angles.
The dinner party guests defined evil in many ways: the absence of good, the disruption of peace, a lack of moral development, an attribute, a power, an infection, a mistake of God, giving in to or repressing an appetite, or ultimately, is evil a secret?
When I think of evil I think of the things that put me into a wordless rage, disgust, and despair. Torturous murders like the dragging death of a black man in Texas; Child abuse, rape, murder; police brutality like that which led to the internal injuries of Abner Luima several years ago. These are acts of extreme violence that go far beyond the taking of a life. These are acts of torture and humiliation, and perhaps evil.
Dr. M. Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie (1983) is an in-depth investigation into individual evil. Peck is a practicing psychiatrist who has been writing about psychology and religion for over 2 decades. In his psychiatric practice he noticed that there were some people it took him a long time to understand. People who’s identities seemed to keep shifting, people, he finally decided, who were always lying to him in one way or another, refusing to show themselves fully. Hiding the truth doesn’t sound inherently evil; but, fleshed out a bit, Peck’s theory begins to make sense.
Peck begins with the core definition of evil as the absence or destruction of good. Evil as all that is against life and liveliness. It has to do with killing. Peck says:
When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is also that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life – particularly human life – such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. (p. 42)
A person who is evil may rob someone of his or her humanity without ever physically harming the person. We sometimes call it emotional abuse: controlling another being, denying them autonomy and freedom. These are one face of evil.
A second element in Peck’s definition of evil is to distinguish between sin and evil. We all sin, Peck says. Whatever my theological orientation or feelings about that word “sin”, I must admit that I am not perfect, that at times – maybe frequently – I miss the mark of my striving. Whether you accept Christian ideals or Buddhist, none of us achieve them perfectly and it is this missing the mark that Peck defines as sin. Evil, he says, is not the sin, but the refusal to acknowledge the sin, to admit that you have missed the mark. Evil is the inability to tolerate the pain and the guilt of having sinned. Here we see the lie – the avoidance of the truth of “missing the mark.” This hardly sounds evil, but let me tell you the story that most affected me in Peck’s book.
He relays a case of a 14-year-old boy he calls Bobby whom he first saw on a psychiatric ward. The police had recommended that Bobby’s parents take him to see a psychiatrist after he was arrested for stealing and then crashing a car. His parents brought him to the hospital where his severe depression was apparent and he was admitted. Peck was called in to see him and learned from the staff that the boy’s brother had killed himself about six months before. For Bobby to be depressed seemed natural. But rather then slowly lifting as he came to terms with his brother’s death, Bobby was becoming more and more depressed. He was uncommunicative, so to try to build some rapport, Peck asked him what he had gotten for Christmas.
“Your parents must have given you something. What did they give you?”
“A gun?” I repeated stupidly.
“What kind of gun?” I asked slowly.
“A twenty-two pistol?”
“No, a twenty-two rifle.”
There was a long moment of silence. (Peck writes) I felt as if I had lost my bearings. I wanted to stop the interview. I wanted to go home. Finally I pushed myself to say what had to be said. “I understand that it was with a twenty-two rifle that your brother killed himself.”
“Was that what you asked for for Christmas?”
“What did you ask for?”
“A tennis racket.”
“But you got the gun instead?”
“How did you feel, getting the same kind of gun that your brother had?”
“It wasn’t the same kind of gun.”
I began to feel better. Maybe I was just confused. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought they were the same kind of gun.”
“It wasn’t the same kind of gun.” Bobby replied. “ It was the gun.”
“You mean, it was your brother’s gun?” I wanted to go home very badly now.
“You mean your parents gave you your brother’s gun for Christmas, the one he shot himself with?”
“Yes.” (p. 51-52)
When Peck spoke with the parents, the picture grew darker, still. Peck questioned the parents about what they had noticed of Bobby’s depression and why they hadn’t sought help for him sooner as his guidance counselor at school had suggested.
The counselor, they protested, had only suggested therapy. They didn’t think it was anything serious. Besides, they didn’t have time to take off work to drive their son around to all those appointments.
Having just experienced the suicide of one son, didn’t they worry about Bobby being in some danger?
Again they protested. No, we didn’t know it was serious.
Peck finally questioned them about the gift of the gun.
Every 14-year old boy wants a gun, his father said. It’s a good gift. We could have sold it and bought something else, but most boys would give their eyeteeth for a gun. How am I supposed to know what he wants for Christmas? He should be grateful.
Peck: You didn’t worry about your depressed son having a gun?
Father: What, are you one of those anti-gun people?
Peck: Did you think about what message you might be communicating to Bobby by giving him his brother’s suicide weapon?
Message? the mother questioned.
Yes, that maybe you would like him to follow in his brother’s footsteps?
Doctor, she said, we are not educated people, we are simple working people and cannot be expected to think of things like that. (this is all paraphrase)
Here is a face of evil – the refusal to acknowledge the sin. When confronted with the drastic inappropriateness of their Christmas gift to their son, this couple stood firm and defended their actions. “We are not educated,” they said over and over. “We cannot think of these things.” That is, we refuse to be held accountable. If they were really an ignorant but loving couple as these parents claim to be, I would expect that when a doctor suggested to them the impact of their actions, they would have been appropriately horrified, remorseful, and showered their son with love and reassurance that it was not the message they intended.
Which brings me to the third component of Peck’s definition of evil. It is systematic. Evil is not a one-time event but a pattern of lies and deception, destruction, disconnection. Bobby’s parents couldn’t be bothered to go out of their way to get their depressed son help. In fact, they did not take his feelings seriously. Although he told them what he wanted for Christmas, they ignored it. In all of Peck’s examples of evil there is a common thread of an inability or unwillingness to recognize the pain they might be causing another. The evil person is the center of their own world and oblivious to the individuality of those around them. Oblivious to any outside stimuli that might disturb their carefully constructed universe.
I’ve spoken here of sin and of evil, two subjects often silent in our Unitarian Universalist congregations. We cherish our Universalist heritage that gives us the phrase “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Sometimes we shorten and corrupt this into the phrase “we believe everyone is good.” In the popular Building Your Own Theology adult education curriculum one of the exercises is to choose from a list of quotes which one best expresses your belief about human nature. Every time I’ve led this curriculum several people choose words from Ann Frank: In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. Often, I too, am one of the people who choose this quote, more out of hope really, than solid belief.
I want to believe that most people, most of the time, are striving for the good and the true. I want to believe this because believing the opposite – that most people, most of the time, are striving only to serve their self-interest – is unbearable. What kind of a world would it be? What would I be able to trust? It is key to me, to my human happiness, to be able to trust and so I do.
What I can believe solidly in, if not human goodness, is potential. This is what our principles affirm – inherent worth and dignity – human potential and value, not goodness.
So I speak here of evil because just as we have the potential for goodness, we also have the potential for evil.
When we stand at a fork in the road we have to decide, Erich Fromm says. It is the moment of potential, and it is the moment of our freedom. Yet even there we are not totally free – we are conditioned by all our previous choices – the more we choose truth, compassion, and integrity, the harder it becomes to be selfish and dishonest. I think this is what Peck meant when he says that evil is systematic. It is not a one-time event but a long pattern of choices.
The examples of evil I have given here have been extreme. But if, as Fromm suggests, that the path to becoming evil starts with the decisions we make when we “stand at the fork in the road and have to decide,” then we have to look at the small things. Is a “white lie” really innocent? Am I saving face for my own sake or for someone else? Am I compassionate? Does my circle of care and concern extend to others, to the society, to the earth? Do the cares of others weigh on my mind and heart occasionally or do I keep myself insulated? Do I treat others as individuals with dignity rather than as tools for my own ends?
According to Fromm, one of the core things determining how we make choices at the fork in the road is our ability to use our creative power. All people, he says, need to create. We need to see that we have an effect in the world. And when I hear him say this, I hear him say that our lives need to have meaning – we need to be able to answer “why am I here” with something. Those who are somehow thwarted from using their power in support of life and liveliness – those who have no positive answer for “why am I here” – will use their power against life.
What I heard in so many of the stories in Peck’s book was meaninglessness and disconnection. They were people who did not feel bound to those around them; they felt apart and other. And I think it is being bound to others that gives our lives meaning – feeling tugged at by responsibility and conscience – because then we know we have an effect and we know we are here for some reason.
So what happened in Oz and who is really evil? The Wizard fled his guilt in one world, severing his connection, and hid behind a mask in another. When someone saw beyond the mask he fled again. The Good Witch Glenda lied when it served her purpose and sent Dorothy into the hands of the Wizard without a second thought. Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, tried to do the right things, but didn’t always succeed. She said at the end:
People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us. . . . It’s people who claim that they’re good, or anyway better then the rest of us, that you have to be wary of. (Wicked, p. 357)