Thursday, December 16, 2010

When good people do bad things

A recent story made me think about the fact that I am idealistic. Those who claim to be realistic have tried to convince me that I will not be this way forever, and that as soon as I meet an evil person I will turn cynical like them. I believe that people are good, and since that might sound naïve, I would like to quickly add that I also understand that people can do bad things.

I was having a conversation with someone about this man who I know who did something that is extremely bad and wrong. Just to be clear, this was something extraordinarily bad, and it is not like he just said a bad word or made some small mistake accidently. She blamed him for something else that he had been involved in, claiming he probably had bad motives in that instance as well. Though he behaved horribly, I suggested, “He probably didn’t think that. He was a nice guy.” This statement caused outrage. “He was a nice guy?!” she exclaimed. “Do you know what he did?!”

She knew very well that I knew about the situation since we had discussed it many times, and in all of those cases I had made it perfectly clear that I thought his actions were wrong, and that I found them to be completely unacceptable. I stared at her and told her that of course I knew what he did and that of course that was a terrible thing, but that doesn’t mean he is completely evil. “People are complex,” I explained, “Just because he did something terrible, doesn’t mean that everything he did was bad and that he was out to get everyone in every aspect of his life.” Looking at me like I was absolutely crazy, she insisted that he only put on show of being nice sometimes, but clearly his morally upsetting actions show that this persona was completely fake. Deep down underneath it all, he is a bad person.

For some reason this made me quiet and thoughtful for the rest of the day, and here I am writing about it to try to sort out my thoughts. Perhaps she is right, I thought, maybe it was all a show and I was completely wrong about him. This idea bothered me for a few reasons, firstly that I am a strong believer in my gut feelings about people. This is why when I first found out what happened, my shock lasted only a few seconds and then I knew it was probably true, even before I received confirmation. Although I always believed his friendliness was genuine, I could tell there was something additional going on with him that made me wary. Secondly, in addition to being bothered at the idea that I was wrong, I was also bothered by the idea that some bad behavior means a person is all bad.

I don’t live in a dream world. I know perfectly well that there are evil people out there, people who want to hurt people, people who do not have any good intentions at all, who are all bad. But I believe those are the few exceptions in humanity, and that most people are good, deep down. It is important to be prudent of people who do bad things, and of course I would never assume that someone who appears to be preparing to cause me harm is really good so I shouldn’t worry about it. Good people do bad things, but that doesn’t mean that they are bad. In fact, one cause of good people becoming bad is when they do one bad thing and believe they cannot fix it and that this one bad act defines who they really are. G-d allows for Teshuva. Ironically, today I spoke to someone in a way that I later regretted. Although I felt terrible afterwards, part of the reason I was upset is because I knew that I acted in a way that was not true to who I really am.
Since it has no practical ramifications to my life, as I don’t interact with this man on a daily basis, and since it is always best to judge people favorable, I concluded by deciding to think that although he messed up big time, aside from that I have faith that he is still a good person.

Questions for the readers/ food for thought: Do you think that someone who does something that is extremely bad and terrible, is all bad? Do you think that someone can be good and bad at the same time or is that too contradictory? Do you believe that there are people out there who are truly evil without any trace of goodness in them?



  1. first of all-great post!

    do i think people are inherently evil? We all have the yetzer hara which by default is stronger than the yetzer tov, and we have to constantly be fighting. I was just thinking how in judaism its not all or nothing. We believe that just because ur doing one thing wrong that means that everything else should go out the window and it does not mean ur a hypocrite.

    That is the yetzer hara trying to get us to quit everything and lose even the small amount of kedusha that we do have in our lives.

    so yes, there are people who have made mostly bad decisions and the more evil acts one does the less he cares and the less sensitive he is, the harder it is to return, but that does not mean its impossible, just much much harder

  2. Very thought provoking post.

    Similar to what aminspiration said, I don't think people are inherently bad. We all have to deal with a yetzer hara and some people don't have the strength to win all battles. Actually, we all don't win all battles.

    Most of the time, I think it starts with something small and it just snowballs into bigger and bigger evils because of human nature. They get used to doing it, and quickly learn how to quiet the guilty conscience. Or they just feel like they are so hopeless, so why bother? But deep down, I really, truly believe that given a chance to change, and of course the tools and help needed, they do really want to be good. You know the example of the neshama being covered in black, but when you scrub and clean it, you'll find that it's pristine underneath.

  3. People in real life aren't either mustachio-twirling villains or good little soldiers. Yes, we are complex - if we look at ourselves psychologically, there is the self doing battle with natural desires and the conscience. When I make a nasty comment I feel sorry about, the nasty comment is in my head, but my desire to act kindly which would usually stop my mouth was not able to move fast enough that time. That is the point of working on one's self, that whatever is in the mind doesn't get acted out.

    The most nefariously evil person has some warm and fuzzy thoughts deep down, nor is he beyond redemption. But Jews are held accountable for their actions, no matter their internal thoughts. Jews are within their rights to shun and exile one who has behaved horribly. If someone has done something execrable, and one says, "He's a nice guy" - there should be previous actions to corroborate that statement. Only God can weigh the bad against the good actions, and divine which outweighs the other.

    Sometimes I get frustrated with someone, and complain about this quality of theirs to someone, who replies, "It doesn't mean their a bad person!" I get annoyed with such a statement. I wasn't saying they were. A person who says that can only see people in black and white terms. One has to see each individual as a composite of good and not good, in my opinion.


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