The problem of evil is quite famous. Even if you’ve never heard about it, you still probably know what it is. God is supposed to have three qualities: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. Yet clearly evil exists in the world, and if evil exists, then God cannot have at least one of those three qualities. Either God knows of evil and is good, but can do nothing to stop it; or God is all powerful and all good, but is ignorant of evil; or God is all powerful and all knowing, but we’ll say is ambivalent towards the fact that evil exists. Hence, the problem of evil. Why devote yourself to any such a God?

As an example, since we are nothing if not a smidgen pretentious here at Blog for Chumps, I’m going to give a quotation from Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov that summarizes it quite well:

This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones!

There have obviously been many attempts to account for the problem of evil. One of the more famous attempts was by St. Augustine of Hippo, who suggested that goodness was like light, and evil was like darkness. Darkness isn’t actually a thing, it is just an absence of light. A bit like how cold is really just the absence of heat. With regard to God and evil, evil doesn’t actually exist per se except as the absence of God. We can choose to follow God, or not, but then that rejection would cast a shadow onto the world, so to speak.

Of course, it’s all a bit bullshit, and isn’t going to convince anyone whose heart isn’t already in it. It creates more questions than it answers (Like how do free will and an all-powerful God coincide? What does “evil” mean, and can it really be described as the absence of goodness when so much of what is “evil” is just bad luck?). So the problem of evil remains.

What if, however, what if the problem of evil was not a theological thorn to be mulled over academically; what if the problem of evil was the universe’s way of saying, “Hey! Fuck Face! Remember how there was a little girl beaten half to death, smeared with shit, and then left in an outhouse to die during a famously unforgiving Russian winter? It was just a few paragraphs ago. It was indented and italicized and everything! That’s not that far off from what happens every day. Maybe y’all should do something ’bout that, hey!?”

This is not groundbreaking stuff. Bad things happen. We all know it. We all want to help. Caring about other people could almost be described as the only moral truism. I’m reminded of one of my favourite lines from The Committeean obscure psychedelic film from 1968 (scored by Pink Floyd):

Look, I’d like to explain to you about that guy. He’s enclosed in himself. He goes on and on, I get the feeling that he just isn’t concerned. Concerned with other people. I mean, everything else is a matter of taste, a matter of opinion. But if anyone can live on this earth and not care about other people…

The why to do anything about it is so obvious there’s almost no point in even asking. Why ought a human being react to suffering? The terms we use to describe such people who don’t typically hover around the word “monster.” They lack “humanity,” the very essence of what it means to be human. The “why” is the easiest thing. We are human. That’s why. The hard part comes after.

Part of the significance of the problem of evil is its enormity. If it could be conquered easily, pretty sure we would have figured it out by now. Some Benedictine Monk would have had a small epiphany one day, and been like, “Oh yeah, that’ll do it!” and everything would have been rosebuds from then on. But no, the evil is too enormous. Consider the unending wars in the Middle East, the threat of increasing world famine as global temperatures rise, the presidential election of a narcissistic bully; it is literally impossible for one person to do anything about all of that. It’s not even a David and Goliath scenario. It’s probably a bit closer to the story of David and the Atomic Bomb. You’d be lucky if more remains of you than your shadow dusted onto the floor.

It is an imposing sight. Some religions have decided to acknowledge the problem of evil, rather than deny it or skirt around it. The primary Buddhist truth is that life is suffering. They suggest getting over it. That’s certainly one way to handle it, but quite frankly if there’s a little girl beaten and stuck in an outhouse somewhere, I certainly hope that any passers-by wouldn’t have that attitude.

Like I said, the why is easy, but with its enormity, we can get a little lost on where to go from there. Who do you help? Having completed a social work degree, I can tell you that those in the caring profession focus primarily on helping themselves. Every guest lecturer spoke about self-care. That’s an easy place to start. Look after yourself. You’ve got to make sure that you yourself are not beaten half to death and smeared in shit before you go looking for others in such predicaments.

From here on out it’s simply a matter of emanating outwards. The first emanation is to your loved ones. These are the people that matter to you. Caring for them is not difficult either; some might even suggest that it’s even easier than caring for yourself. These are the people who support you, and in turn depend on you for support. Take care of them next.

The second emanation is to your community. The interdependence is a bit hazier here than with your loved ones, but it still exists to some degree. Your community supports you, and in turn, you need to support your community. Your community is still relatively easy to care for, as well. If you’re going to make a difference in the world, this is where it is likely going to be. Keep in mind, your community could be as small as your neighbourhood, as big as your country, or if you’re really masochistic, the planet itself. Each of those statements of community, however, has to be made with the understanding of who else belongs to that community too. You can’t claim to be a citizen of the world and then ignore those troublesome populations that don’t quite fit in with your worldview. It is totally fine to limit your community, however, since we have one final emanation to cover.

The third emanation is to everyone and everything else. Whether you’re caring for your family, your neighbourhood, your city, or your country, you have to at least be conscious of global affairs. Like if you’re developing a recycling program for your neighbourhood or whatever, you should at least be aware of the global slide into climate change. Or if you’re setting up refugees into shelters and connecting them with a community support network, you should at least be aware of the wars that pushed them into this situation, and the international backlash against their very existence. This is certainly not to dissuade you, just to remind you. This is the why, remember? The problem of evil is what motivated us in the first place. The problem of evil in all its monstrous, unholy glory. We’re doing this because we care on a scale bigger than ourselves, but we act within a limited range because that’s all we’re capable of.

I’m hoping that we’re all feeling pretty jazzed about caring for other people right about now, but before we go off all gang busters to do that there is one more thing I’d like to address. There were probably very few, if any of you who clicked on my The Committee hyperlink up there to examine it further, so I’ll highlight the following line, said in response to the protagonist’s quote about that guy who isn’t concerned for other people:

So you cut his head off. The thing you really seem to hold against him is typified by what you did to him.

Since this may seem odd (it’s a psychedelic film; it’s odd in context as well), the story goes that the protagonist killed some dude because that dude didn’t care for other people. He chopped his head clean off by slamming it under the hood of his car. If depicted today I imagine it would be quite graphic, but back in 1968 I assure you it was quite sterile.

The point is that it matters how we help people, just as much as who we help and why. The film quite pointedly declares that exacting vigilante justice on whomever we think deserves it is the wrong way to do it. Pro-tip: if your version of helping involves murder in any way, you’re doing it wrong. Now, the how has been debated longer than the problem of evil has even existed. What is the nature of morality? How do I help?

Lucky for you, I solved morality ages ago. The how is just about as easy as the why. Do you know what the entire culmination of philosophy of ethics has resulted in? I’ll tell you. We don’t know shit. Honestly, if you’re up for it, you can work through most of it playing this silly game, and the conclusion is the one I gave. We don’t know shit. What do we do when we don’t know shit? We ask. I’m a straight dude; what do I know about the problems of the LGBT community? A scraping, maybe, since I try to be socially conscious, but their grasp of it is the iceberg underneath the tip that I can see. If I were so inclined to care for that portion of my community, I would ask. What can I do to help? Want to care about the homeless? Find organizations closest to that demographic; what can I do to help? Aboriginal groups? What can I do to help? Adult male offenders? What can I do to help?

Ask. Learn. That shit is out there. Not just for community stuff either. How can you help your Mom? What about a niece or nephew? Close friends and lovers need help to, and the same rules apply. Is there a problem? What is it? How can I help?

The why driving us is so enormous that sometimes we can only focus on how big, grotesque, and impossible it all is. I can’t do this. There’s no point in doing that. Fuck those people they had their chance, I’m just going to make sure I come out okay. The monolith of evil can seem so tall that we feel like we are the only ones sitting under its shadow. But what it stands for is our ultimate driver: care for other people. Obviously. Ask them how you can help. Simple enough. And do it in such a way that you can make a difference. Whatever else you believe is irrelevant.

I’m going to close off here with a short parable. There’s an old man walking down a beach after high tide on a sunny, summer day. Millions of starfish remain from the tide, slowly drying out to their deaths in the hot sun. The old man picks up one starfish, carries it out to the water, and places it down. He continues this process for a time until he suddenly notices a small child is staring at him. The child asks, “Old man, why are you doing that? Can’t you see that there are too many starfish here? You’ll never save them all! What difference can you actually make?” The old man does not saying anything. He picks up a starfish, walks it over to the water, and puts it down in the ocean, saving its life. “Made a difference to that one,” says the old man.

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