Let us pray.
Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
The television show Once Upon a Time tells the classic story of the Little Red Riding Hood with a twist. The show’s version of the story contains all the familiar elements—a girl who wears a red cloak, an old grandmother, and a fearsome wolf—but the plot of the reimagined narrative differs quite markedly from the fairytale we might have known as children. In Once Upon a Time, Little Red Riding Hood is no innocent, harmless victim. She has a secret. During a full moon, after it gets dark, Little Red Riding Hood turns into a big, violent wolf. She herself, it is eventually revealed, is the very enemy her granny and everyone else had taught her to fear—the gruesome murderer terrorizing the village by killing ruthlessly night after night. Her granny locks her up, we learn, not to protect her from the wolf outside, but to protect others from the wolf that is within her.
Such an approach has little effectiveness, however. Little Red Riding Hood keeps on killing, despite her granny’s attempts to shut her inner wolf away, and Red even kills some of the people that she loves. It is only after she meets other wolves that the killing begins to stop. Those wolves teach her that her inner wolf does not need to be locked up—that it can be accepted and controlled. “You are the wolf,” one of them explains to her, telling her not to suppress her true nature. “The only way you will ever control the wolf,” she is told, “is by accepting it as part of you.” In time, Red discovers that she can negotiate both of her identities simultaneously—that she can be both human and wolf at once.
A secret, dark side. A split personality. A double life. The violent, destructive potential latent within seemingly good people has been the preoccupation of storytellers for centuries. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote about a scientist whose botched experiment on himself caused him to turn into an irresponsible and deviant person every evening, and in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the titular hero notably carried a tiny part of the villain Voldemort within himself. Literature is also full of stories of corrupted innocence: The Lord of the Flies imagines young boys becoming murderous when left to their own devices, while Hamlet and Macbeth serve as case studies for how stressful situations can send decent people down sinister paths. We all have a little bit of evil inside of us, these works seem to say, and it lurks covertly, ready to erupt, deep within.
Yet one need not look to fiction for evidence of our capacity for wickedness. Instead, one could simply turn on the evening news. Night after night, it seems, we are introduced to yet another good guy whose mask has been taken off to reveal someone truly horrible underneath. The popular politician embezzles or is bribed; the respected religious leader engages in the very activity he preached in the pulpit against; the sympathetic figure with a story too good to be true emerges as a liar and a fraud. Our televisions and our smartphones offer us no shortage of examples of evil manifesting itself in people we thought were good, in people we thought were blameless, in people we thought had it all put together. And, most of the time, we’re so fascinated by the intrigue of a particular scandal that we can’t bring ourselves to look away.
Perhaps one of the reasons we are so enthralled by these stories of moral hypocrisy and contradiction is that we recognize the seeds of evil within ourselves. We may not pursue a thrilling extramarital affair or lash out at a co-worker who gets on our nerves, but we may notice within ourselves an inclination to do so. Think about how often you wish that you could do what you want with no regard for consequences or anyone else’s wellbeing. If only you could give that nasty person who cut in front of you in the line at Stew Leonard’s a piece of your mind! If only you could silence that pesky family member who insists on invading your privacy! If only you could amass and devour everything you desired without sharing with anyone or paying for anything! We are far quicker to point out the problematic behavior we witness in others than we are to acknowledge the dangerous tendencies that exist within ourselves.
I remember as a ninth-grader being astounded at my own thirst for competition. I had previously thought of myself as a nice, calm, gentle, respectable young man—but during the final sprint of a mid-season cross country meet, I found myself forcefully pushing and shoving my way past my own teammate and friend. Points for the team weren’t at stake, so there was no reason to be so aggressive except for my own pride. Yet I recall being so determined to win—so focused on beating my own friend—that I was willing to put aside reason and for a few moments not even think about the violence I was capable of and the damage I could do. Thankfully, my friend was surprised but not hurt, and we remain friends to this day. But I still am haunted by just how easily I could forget my obligations to my neighbor and let the voracious animal within me take over.
James speaks of “the cravings that are at war within you”—and, in doing so, I would argue, he speaks of things that we all know about. Don’t we all have wolves within us—fierce carnivores that would be ready to attack everything in sight if we did not have our rules and our consciences to keep them in check? Few of us are murderers, of course, but we do know what it’s like to be angry. We do know what it’s like to want something of someone else’s, whether that something is a car or a job or a spouse. We do know what it’s like to argue with each other about who’s going to be first and greatest of all. From my perspective, James isn’t scolding us as much as he is accurately capturing the reality of who we are. We all have cravings. We all have a bit of aggression and envy and anger and malice within us. We all, every so often, want to do something bad. It’s human nature.
The good news is that recognition is the first step on the road to recovery. Telling the truth is an essential component of the process of resisting evil and moving forward. “Do not be boastful and false to the truth,” James advises, before encouraging us to aim towards a form of wisdom “without a trace of partiality and hypocrisy.” In order to fight the evil that is within, we have to first notice and name it and then work to integrate it into the rest of our selves. Locking the wolf up behind closed doors won’t work. In that case, the wolf would get claustrophobic, become reckless, and escape, causing even greater problems for us than if we had left it alone. We have to own the wolf within us, accept it, and learn to control it.
For you, that may seem to be a tad unrealistic. Control the wolf? What may terrify you most about the wolf may be precisely its wild, uncontrollable quality. How could you learn to control a being that seems so powerful, so unwieldy, so out of control? But that’s where God comes in. Many things are impossible for human beings acting alone, but nothing is impossible for God. When God is at the helm, all sorts of unreasonable things can happen: a community full of people with uncontrollable cravings can turn from the devil and embrace the way of gentleness, a bunch of posturing disciples all squabbling over who is the greatest can help to form one of the largest religious movements in history, a little child can lead the whole world to salvation, and—perhaps most unrealistic of all—a wolf can become friends with a lamb.