A LITTLE PRIMER ON OVERCOMING BAD WITH GOOD
A Little Primer on Overcoming Bad With Good
(Or, "The Way of the Skywalker")
Let’s start with a basic idea: we want to overcome “bad” with “good.”
There’s plenty of “bad” stuff in the world. We’d rather things be “good.” *
That can be our “obvious” starting point, or self-evident axiom. Or, if we wanted to geek out a little, we could say we want to overcome things from “the dark side” of The Force.
But the question then becomes, “How?”
Simple question. But the answer can be complex.
As it turns out, there’s an effective way to do it. And there’s also a way that backfires, and backfires spectacularly.
Let’s start with a few ways it can backfire.
Let’s imagine someone gets inspired and wants to do good in the world.
What might be the worst possible answer to the “How?” question?
That answer would go something like this: “How do I do good in the world? Well, it’s pretty simple: get rid of all the bad people!” This would mean, roughly:
Step 1) Find all the bad people
Step 2) Get rid of them
Step 3) The only people left after that will be the good ones
Problem solved, right?
The flaws of this kind of thinking are hopefully obvious. But understand the underlying dynamics, or the “why” of it all, can be trickier.
The thinking here is essentially this: “X is bad, and I’m against that, so therefore, I must be good.”
But this can backfire to a colossal degree.
A few more examples should help make this point.
- “The beatings will continue until morale improves!”
- “Kill all the murderers!”
- “Let’s criticize each other until we feel nothing but love for each other!”
These are all “strategies that try to overcome the bad.”
Yet these “solutions” make problems worse.
Part of the answer is this:
It becomes circular, and feeds itself.
Each of these strategies contains a negative feedback loop.
For example, let’s look more closely at the strategy of “Let’s criticize each other until we feel nothing but love for each other!”
What will happen here?
We can imagine a married couple – Bob and Betty – that are having difficulties. They visit a marriage therapist, who thinks ”venting” and emotional catharsis is the royal road to intimacy.
So, Betty criticizes Bob. “He’s a lazy slob who always leaves his socks in the cereal bowls!”
Then Bob criticizes Betty. “She’s an angry shrew who criticizes me relentlessly, and she puts toothpaste in my sandwiches!”
As therapy progresses, they discover that they aren’t quite feeling love for each other yet.
So, they need more therapy.
Betty criticizes Bob even more, at great length, in excruciating detail. “He doesn’t brush his teeth enough! If I didn’t put toothpaste in his sandwiches, he’d hardly use toothpaste at all!” And Bob continues doing the same to Betty.
Are we having fun yet?
Clearly, things aren’t going well, and this means, of course, that they need even more therapy. After all, they aren’t gushing with love just yet. So, the answer? More criticism, and more therapy, ad infinitum, or until the gush starts.
What’s going on here?
If they keep going along these lines, Bob and Betty will soon be heading for a divorce, prison, or worse. Or all three.
It isn’t because both individuals have certain flaws. We all have flaws.
It’s because they’re trying to “overcome bad” in a way that backfires. The strategy they’re using to “overcome the bad” only leads to more “bad.”
The strategy is one of trying "to overcome bad with bad." Or, phrased differently, it's an effort to "overcome evil with evil."
It’s the same with the other two examples.
Let’s say the strategy is “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”
Is morale low? “Well, then, we need to fix that! Time for a good beating!” Soon after the beating, shocker: “What? Morale is even lower? Well, good thing we know how to fix that!” And etc.
How does “Kill all the murderers!” as a solution to murder play out?
In one scenario, every executioner becomes a new murderer, who then needs a new executioner, who then becomes a new murderer, who then needs a new executioner, and so on. Eventually, there’s only one person left on the planet, who is the last murderer. It doesn’t end well.
Pretty grim stuff.
But there’s one thing we should also notice: all of this is based entirely on good intentions.
“I only have the best of intentions! Isn’t that enough?”
After all, in each of these cases, the whole matter started with an effort to improve morale, end murder, and feel love.
Those are good things, right? Who could be against those? (“Only bad people, that’s who!” – the thinking goes.)
What might happen to anyone who suggests that the approaches (not intentions) used here are less than perfect?
Well, they could easily be accused of being against love, high morale, or people not being murdered. They would get discredited.
These “solutions” could easily then get locked into place. Anyone who suggested a different approach would be criticized for being against love, high morale, or ending murder. Intentions get fused with results, which can make flawed strategies immune to change. The result is semi-permanent dysfunction, and lots of funerals, prison time, and more toothpaste sandwiches.
These examples all set up a “Hatfield-McCoy” dynamic.
The story is the classic family feud: a member of the Hatfield family kills one of the McCoys (accidentally, or not.)
The McCoys don’t like that, so they kill one of the Hatfields.
That makes the Hatfields really mad, so they come for revenge, and kill a few McCoys. Now the McCoys are even angrier. And etc, etc.
This cycle, uninterrupted, will play itself out until one or both sides is entirely gone.
Not a good approach to overcoming bad.
These all illustrate a flawed approach.
All of the above examples illustrate efforts to “overcome badness with badness.”
One of the great story villains of all time was Leland Gaunt in the Stephen King story Leland Gaunt in the Stephen King story "Needful Things." What did Gaunt do? He went around, deliberately orchestrating Hatfield-McCoy situations of all varieties and favors, and just for the fun of it, apparently.
Gaunt had no real power, aside from power his victims gave him, which mainly consisted in their trust and gullibility. They believed him, and got tricked – often because he knew how to flatter, soothe, and tell them what they wanted to hear.
That’s one of the interesting things about that story: none of the supposed “bad guys” saw themselves as bad guys. Gaunt played each of them so they saw themselves as good.
This points toward a key ingredient.
From the therapist to the company manager to every Hatfield and McCoy in the scenarios above, all of them justify themselves by their good intentions.
The thinking, again, is “I’m against X, and X is bad, therefore, that makes me good.”
But the cases above demonstrate it well:
X can be bad.
And someone might be against X.
But that doesn’t make that person good.
Nietzsche, in a classic quote, said this:
“Beware that, when fighting monsters,
you do not become a monster.”
Fred seemed to have some real insight into some of this. It’s possible to fight monsters. But that’s not enough. And there’s a real danger in becoming what you’re fighting against. Or worse.
So, what’s a better approach?
Fortunately for us, we aren’t the first to wrestle with this problem. In fact, people have been working to solve this for thousands of years.
Some, it seems, have even solved it.
“For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal”
- Buddha, The Dhammapada, 1, 5
“We should never return evil for evil, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.”
- Plato (Crito)
“He therefore who knows it [reached self-realization], becomes quiet, subdued, satisfied, patient, and collected. He sees self in Self, sees all as Self. Evil does not overcome him, he overcomes all evil. Evil does not burn him, he burns all evil.”
– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
(Trans Max Müller, The Sacred Books of the East, Volume 15)
“Overcome evil with good.”
– Romans 12:21
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred.”
- Vaclav Havel
The quotes could keep going. There are many more that express the same idea in different ways.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily the way things normally work. The best approach isn’t necessarily popular or well-known.
So, how does this alternative approach work?
It “breaks the loop.”
The key mechanic consists of disrupting the closed, self-reinforcing chain reaction of cause and effect.
One way is by introducing something new – an entirely different dynamic – from an entirely different level.
This can work like removing a few dominos.
When a line of dominos is falling, and each domino is knocking the next one down, all it takes to stop everything is to remove a few of them. When the chain of cause and effect gets interrupted, the process stops.
Someone once said (not Einstein, apparently) that some problems can’t be solved on the same level they were created on.
That’s it. But what’s the alternative?
A new force has to enter the dynamic. That force has to be from a deeper or higher level than the level the problem currently exists on.
The specifics of this can get complex.
But the essentials are straightforward.
When dominos are falling, the effects are, for the most part, predictable and even inevitable. If someone understands cause and effect fairly well, and is able to “read the chessboard,” it can become fairly easy to know what’s going to happen, and even cause things to happen. It’s a closed, deterministic system.
But what’s not predictable are things from outside the system – a “force” on a higher or deeper level. In the case of dominos, for example, a human being reaching in and removing a few dominos “stops the inevitable.” The human being in that scenario is outside of the close system – is “transcendent” to the dominos, in a way – and changes things.
This points to the effort to get higher or deeper than the current level.
In practical terms, the back-of-the-book answer is no secret: when facing difficult situations, it lies in being intelligent and clear, empathetic and understanding, strong but also forgiving, and so on. It lies in seeing a bigger picture than the immediate – a greater chain of cause and effect than the obvious.
Easy to say.
In a way, everybody already “knows” this, and it seems like common sense. Knowing is the easy part. Doing is the hard part. (We all “know” how to be champion quarterbacks: throw the ball so your guy catches it and the other team doesn’t. Actually doing it, though, is a very different animal.)
It means going from being merely intellectual to experiential. It’s an insight that has to be practiced to be appreciated. It’s not enough to understand, it has to be lived. It means crossing the big gap between understanding and experiencing.
But this can sound abstract and philosophical. What it needs is a role model.
Luke Skywalker can help us out here.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, what was the aim of The Emperor, Darth, and everyone on “Team Dark Side” in regards to Luke?
They weren’t simply trying to kill him.
The movie wasn’t just one army fighting another, or a mere struggle of force-against-force. Much of the real action was happening on a completely different level.
There was an entirely different game being played.
Their primary aim was to convert him.
They didn't merely want to stop his physical body from working. They wanted to transform his mind. They wanted his allegiance.
They preferred that route. They were trying to bring him over to their side.
How? By baiting him. They were constantly trying to poke, prod, and tease him so that he would “give in” to his anger.
The idea, it seems, is that it would ensnare him. It would transform him into someone who would suddenly find himself on their side. Per Nietzsche’s warning (and as a practice of "The Way of Gaunt," described below,) it was deliberately trying to turn someone who was fighting “monsters” into a monster. At some points in the final battle (in Jedi), it became clear that the Emperor was even willing to sacrifice Vader’s life for this, when he (The Emperor) encouraged Luke to finish him (Vader.)
If Luke had allowed himself to be baited and caught up in that, he would soon find himself on their side. He would have become what he was fighting against.
They all seemed to know there was something mysterious at work.
Even if Luke would win the literal, physical battle – by killing Vader, for example – there was some way that doing this would cross some other line within himself. And if he crossed that inner line – a line within himself – then they would win a bigger prize. They would win him.
But Luke overcame in the end by removing himself from the entire dynamic.
At critical moments when the tension had built to the point where it was about to explode, Luke stopped and turned off his lightsaber, and said, in so many words, “no.” He rejected the entire system they were trying to suck him into.
That’s an example of overcoming bad with good.
Like with Gaunt in Needful Things, the way to "win" seems to lie not in playing the game. They just want you to play. If you play by their rules, then if you lose, you lose, and if you win, you lose.
The real trick lies in finding a way to no play the game they want you to play at all.
When the game starts to become “Hatfield-verses-McCoys,” the way good can overcome bad isn’t for one side to annihilate the other. It lies in not getting enmeshed in the entire thing to start with.
This doesn’t just apply to a literal “Hatfield-McCoy” situation.
Few of us are involved in literal family feuds these days.
But this same dynamic can take place within us.
Fear, for example, can make us fearful. It casts a spell on us, and holds us in a kind of trance. When we’re in this trance, it can lead to more fear, which can lead to us becoming more fearful. A chain reaction can be set up: fear -> becoming fearful -> more fear -> becoming more fearful -> and so on. (Like Kennedy referenced: it’s possible for us to fear fear itself. This, we could call a self-verifying closed loop of circular logic.)
Anger can have the same self-sustaining feedback loop. Anger leads to becoming more angry, which leads to even more anger, and so on. It’s also a chain reaction: anger -> becoming angry -> more anger -> becoming even more angry -> and so on.
This same multiplying effect can happen with guilt, loneliness, hatred, shame, and so on.
It can happen both outside us and inside us.
And the better approach is the same, wherever it happens.
To be clear, the idea isn’t to become a doormat.
Just the opposite. Nothing about this approach means surrendering and just letting bad guys rule.
It doesn’t mean never taking a stand.
The trick lies in taking a stand at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons, and in a way so you don’t become what you’re standing against.
The basic idea, it seems, is to “come from a different place.”
Some things are both contagious, addictive, and if left unchecked, all-consuming.
Anger, fear, guilt, and other inner states can work in this way. Anger can feed on anger to create more anger. Fear can feed on itself, which creates more fear. These states can even “infect” other people, and even groups of people. If they really run rampant, they can take over everything, like a tyrant seizing power (eg Palpatine) and taking over a kingdom.
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
(Is it wrong to borrow from both Yoda and Buddha? Hopefully not.)
The “Three Poisons” in Buddhism are “greed” (raga), “hate” (dvesha, or anger), and “ignorance” (moha, or ignorance.) There are several variations of these (the six “enemies of the mind” from Hinduism, the “nafs” in Sufism, the classical “Cardinal” and “Theological” vices, etc), but they all seem to bear a certain family resemblance.
The basic idea, then, is to steer clear of these “infections.” It lies in liberating ourselves from this chain of cause-and-effect, and operating in an entirely different arena that has a different set of rules.
The challenge is to deal with whatever “badness” is out there (and “in” there) while also staying independent of it (outside of it, deeper or higher than it), and remaining essentially untouched.
This can become self-sustaining in the opposite way: with good.
It reverses the dynamic, so clear vision and good judgment creates more clear vision and good judgment, in a positive, self-building cycle.
When this dynamic kicks in, it can allow someone enough clarity to perceive the difference between a Vader and an Emperor Palpatine, for example.
Early on, Luke could have easily demonized both Palpatine and Vader, and written them off as mere enemies. But instead, he had the presence of mind to discern something more subtle, and invisible to many others: that there was still some good in Vader.
Eventually, he was proven right.
This approach isn’t simple or easy.
This doesn’t mean that “good guys” win every battle. They don’t. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Life is full of struggle, and suffering seems baked into the cake.
But the trick, it seems, is to respond to this effectively.
And despite the odds, this approach is effective.
This approach runs against many of our natural instincts and automatic reactions. It asks us to work to develop more awareness, self-control, and intelligence than we often have naturally. It calls for things like a greater awareness and understanding, a sense of forgiveness and empathy, and inner strength, all at the same time.
In this sense, it asks us to “know ourselves.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said it well:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
We can’t always do a lot to fix the entire world singlehandedly.
But we can do something about ourselves.
Call it the “wear shoes” approach.
It contrasts with the “give the entire universe a makeover” approach.
Ramana Maharshi said it:
“Wanting to reform the world without discovering one's true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.”
This challenges us with something even bigger than “saving the world.”
It challenges us with taking on ourselves. Which is harder.
It’s relatively easy to want to see “bad stuff” that’s “out there” in the world and attack it. It can sometimes be even harder to see imperfections in ourselves, and work to solve them.
This challenge might seem impossible sometimes.
In the short run, it might seem literally impossible.
But in the long run, it might be much easier.
Why? Because eventually, in enough time, this approach seems to work, and the other approach seems to fil.
The “bad-verses-bad,” Hatfield-McCoy dynamic illustrates how the “mistaken” strategies, in a way, “run out of fuel.” They eventually exhaust themselves.
But this other approach is “sustainable.” It reverses the dynamic. Instead of a situation where infectious and all-consuming “bad” things – anger, fear, shame, etc – eventually eats themselves and disappear –this point toward the opposite. It points toward what’s beyond the bad: the background of good things that lead to more life.
May The Force be with you.
* This article is using the terms "bad" and "good" without defining them. For brevity, we'll defer to "common sense."