Why is there evil?

One might argue that evil is in the eye of the beholder. It is socially constructed. That is a singularly cruel interpretation, since it devalues and discounts the pain that a recipient of evil feels. When one has felt evil, it certainly feel real. Sandy Hook Elementary School feels real.

One can argue that there is no God, or how could He countenance such evil as a mad young man killing children and adults at a school. Yet that argument discounts the majority of people in the world who sense there is a higher power and ultimate meaning in life.

One might conversely argue that there is a God. He creates a world where there might be evil, depending on choices His children make. Because He is committed to individual agency, He may not intervene to eliminate evil, since then He’d allow a greater evil, that of making His children into mere automatons. I prefer that argument.

Opinions are not facts. We are left with one fact.

There is evil.

The appearance of evil calls us to do good.

Children are senselessly murdered. To whom might we do good? Might it not be to the surviving children?


There are three reactions to evil.

When evil appears, some people are damaged. They are set back on their heels, and they seem to never regain their balance. They suffer posttraumatic stress disorder.

Some people suffer from the evil, and then bounce back. They soon recover their balance. The symptoms of stress pass quickly. We might call that group resilient.

Some suffer from evil, bounce back, and then make a point of growing. A son disappears and the father creates a nationwide program for finding wanted criminals. An innocent young girl dies of a hit-and-run and the mother creates a national organization to fight drunk driving.

This third group we might call post-traumatic growth.

To eliminate evil is simply not possible. Some solutions to evil are worse than the disease. Arguably Prohibition was both a strong response to evil and the cure being worse than the disease.

So if we cannot eliminate evil, what must we do? Perhaps our duty is to support posttraumatic growth. I offer three verses.


One of my best supervisors was John Weakland. The model of family therapy at the Brief Therapy Institute in Palo Alto was live behind-the-mirror supervision. The team behind the mirror would call in suggestions to the therapist and the family being seen.

One day Dick Fisch, MD, got into an argument with a family. The mother complained about her son acting up at school. She said she could tell when he was getting into trouble at school. Dick, a materialist (“Fundamentalist materialist? Fundamaterialist?”) argued that she could not. Telepathy was impossible, he asserted. She said she could tell what her son was doing, although he was at school and she was at home. They squabbled back and forth. John Weakland behind the mirror was frustrated at Dick’s non-therapeutic behavior. He called Dick on the phone. The telephone rang, Dick picked it up and John made a few comments.

Dick looked at the phone and put it down. He hanged his head, as if ashamed.

He turned to the family, addressing the mother. “My colleagues behind the mirror have pointed out that I have overlooked something of great value. It is clear to them that you actually are able to receive signals from your son at school. Since you are a wonderful receiving station, why not turn it around? Can you become a transmitting station? Can you not send a powerful message back to your son at school, helping him regain his calmness and focus, and pay more attention?”

(Note how Dick doesn’t believe any of that. It is simply to change her “view” of the problem and therefore how she will “do” the problem. Strategic therapy tries to change the viewing, the doing, or the context of a problem and thus to disrupt the problem itself.)

The mother agreed that the supervisors behind the mirror were indeed far brighter and more insightful that Dr. Fisch, and thus agreed to do the homework. In the next session, she reported that she had felt her son begin to misbehave, and immediately sat down and concentrated on sending him messages of self-control. That afternoon when he returned from school, he reported he had behaved himself in class, much to everyone’s delight. He had received his mother’s comforting message, she concluded.

Now one way to look at PTSD and psychic damage is that it is, certainly in part, the way we socially define and construe the event. When we act as if the children are terribly damaged and scarred, we make that very scarring more likely. People are deeply influenced by how they think others see them.

Sandy Hook Elementary School was closed after the disastrous event, and has not been reopened. I view this not as a solution but as a problem. It is a problem that harms the people involved.


Simply because I cannot sense something does not mean is cannot exist. To think otherwise is to fall into the worst kind of egotism. Thanks to qualifying with the M-14 7.62 mm rifle in my Army days, I am pretty much deaf above 4,000 cycles per second. My daughter has tested her hearing and can discern tones almost to 20,000 cycles per second. She literally has the ears of a fox.

In societies I am familiar with, there is a “sacred vs. profane” dichotomy when it comes to locations. Among near-death experiencers there are those who can hold an object and tell us details about the person who owns the object. There are such people in every culture. The universal construct is that objects can carry a kind of information imprint of events. That is, when we enter a holy site, whether a mountaintop or a cathedral, if we are spiritually in tune, we feel the holiness of the place. You may not feel it. I don’t, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Think of how you feel in the presence of great art or beautiful music. Do you not feel that you are in a sacred place? Think of a time you saw someone do something kind and loving. Did you not feel that you were on holy ground?

Do you have ears to hear?

At the same time, Auschwitz and other locations are carriers of evil. Again, the spiritually attuned (those on the far end of the normal distribution in terms of spiritual sensitivity, as William James suggested) report that they are able to feel that evil. They sense it as a tangible thing, attached to the walls and ground. They know for a certainty that something horrible happened there.

(No one needs to believe this spiritual conceptualization, simply to respect it as a common experience among all people. The concept / emotional experience of AWE is universal. So is the emotion of disgust, something most people can feel, and dogs apparently cannot.)

Sandy Hook Elementary School was closed. Now one can argue that by closing the school where the shootings took place, the local authorities are actually practicing a kind of religious observance, setting the location of a locus of evil. They superstitiously or intuitively feel that such evil is to be avoided.

But avoiding evil is in itself a kind of facilitating of evil. Stay away from an evil place? This empowers the evil, reifies it. Rather, should not the evil be diminished or exorcised? One way to do that is to invite the children who feel ready to visit the school and celebrate the lives of those who died. Local spiritual leaders can and should be invited to visit the school, from American Indian shamans to Catholic Priests. They should be encouraged to cleanse the site of evil, releasing, and even offering forgiveness for the terrible suffering that led the perpetrator to commit his evil act.

Avoid the location? Close it forever? It is wrong, and it conveys to the children that they are not resilient. It tells the children that they are weak and small and helpless and must cultivate fear and avoidance.

Rather, the call to the community is to redeem. Revenge says, “You are irredeemable and deserve destruction.” Victimhood says, “I must stay away; evil is strong, and good is weak.”

There is a better way. Compassion says to the evil place, “You are capable of redemption and we offer it to you. It is not yet too late.” The community should cleanse and sanctify the unholy location, and it should be dedicated to be of use. The location can and should be redeemed. Invite children to participate. They are intriniscally holy. They may not feel strong. If the children participate in that redemption, is it possible that they themselves are redeemed? No force or coercion, but invitation. Every culture has a ritual of cleansing. What would the children wish to do? Do they wish to burn sage, or light candles, or fast and pray? Do they wish to cleanse the building and by so doing, cleanse themselves of the indwelling results of evil?

Aren’t we disempowering those children to close their school without redeeming it?


A family therapist was contacted by a family whose young son was so terrified of dogs that he could practically not leave his house. In family therapy the counselor directed the family to find some puppies (changing the context from dogs to puppies) and to adopt one, but only one that ran away. By finding and healing a puppy afraid of people, the boy could heal himself of being afraid of dogs.

An alcoholic active in recovery once told me that the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W, experienced a redemptive spiritual event, a feeling of light and love. But in spite of that, so I was told, Bill W relapsed. He was distraught, wondering what value the spiritual event had if he had not been healed by it. The thought came to him that he should find another alcoholic and help him. Redemption begets redemption; healing promotes healing. Where there is hate and pain, let there be love and peace.

(I don’t know about the accuracy of this. The story may not be true, but is should be.)

Our society is compromised by hate and revenge, by pain and casting out of evil. Jesus was criticized for eating with sinners. He replied they needed redemption. He drew them in. The Sandy Hook school needs redemption. Should the old school be a monument to evil? No! It does need redemption. It is us, the living, who must do that redemption. Would that redemption be spiritually efficacious? I don’t feel the things more spiritually attuned feel. But I know the redemption will help the living. By that redemption, perhaps many of the victims of the horrible event of that day might find their own redemption.

We are called to create a society of the redeemed. Let’s get to it.