We often watch in horror and disbelief the media reports of human atrocities, violence and war. However, evil is a very real part of the human psyche.
Concerning evil in the context of war, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Evil exists. God exists also. Evil and God are two sides of ourselves.” We carry within ourselves all human qualities including compassion and love, as well as hatred and violence. Humans have the unique capacity of both war and peace. As Victor Frankel, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, reminded us, “We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”
War, greed, hatred, and violence universally exist in all of us. However, we often have difficulty in acknowledging the existence of both our individual and collective evil. As a result, our good side becomes an inflated part of our psyches and personas. We have dichotomously polarized and denied our evil. Into the unconscious it goes where its energy grows and manifests through shadow projections onto others.
Through this projection, we create animosity towards friends, co-workers, family members and neighbours. Shadow material can be placed collectively onto entire groups and nations. If we want to understand our desire towards war, we must better understand our own psyches.
Shortly after World War II, Jung stated, “Human nature is capable of an infinite amount of evil, and the evil deeds are as real as the good ones. … Only the unconscious makes no difference between good and evil. Inside the psychological realm one honestly does not know which of them predominates in the world. We hope, merely, that good does.” This perspective certainly contradicts the one-sided view that we are only or mostly good.
We already know our capabilities of generating war. However, we have far less experience with creating peace. Building sustainable peace requires an awakening of higher levels of consciousness that go beyond an ‘us versus them’ mentality. We must accept the moral and ethical duty to change our behaviour away from war and towards peace. As Jung observed in 1959, “the world today hangs by a thin thread. And that is the psyche of man. We are the great danger. Psyche is the great danger. How important it is to know about it and yet we know nothing about it.”
Let us conclude with the remembrance of all veterans with Laurence Binyon’s poem, ‘For the Fallen.’
They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.