Malevolence

A discussion I recently had with a parishioner eventually turned to the question of malevolence, because of things that were being experienced. I firmly believe that there exist malevolent personalities out there. I also think that many of us are poorly equipped to deal with such persons when we encounter them.

What is malevolence? The word comes from the Latin word malevolens, meaning a wicked or spiteful person, and it in turn comes from two root words: malus, which means “evil”, and volens, “to wish, desire, be favourable towards”. A malevolent personality, then, means a person who engages in seeking evil for others, rather than their good.

The idea that such a thing exists causes many of us to recoil in horror. Evil is ugly, and we do not want to look at it. Many of us make the mistake of trying to reason away the existence of evil. “Perhaps the malevolent person does not realise the harm they are doing,” we might say to ourselves. “Perhaps the malevolent person is a victim of a poor upbringing, and so is not really responsible for their choices.” “Perhaps the person I think is malevolent is not really making evil choices, but is simply psychologically ill.” In any of these cases, evil is reduced to merely being some form of an “accident of life,” and it is easy to forgive or excuse accidents. In many cases, one of these may be true. But what if it isn’t?

I have found that the difference between persons who are malevolent, versus those who are merely psychologically ill, lies in the nature of their break with reality. A person who has suffered a psychotic break may act out in anti-social behaviours, but their entire life eventually becomes disorganized, and we typically see that they themselves are victims of their unusual behaviour; their contact with reality is characterized by *confusion*. In my honest opinion, such persons probably still seek the same *ends* in life as ordinary folks, but their illness prevents them from using appropriate *means* to attain those ends, because the psychotic break damages their ability to determine true cause and effect.

A malevolent person, on the other hand, is highly functional. They are often very well-spoken, and appear confident and self-assured. They seem in control. They understand cause and effect, but in their pursuit of desired effects they are willing to use two kinds of “causes” that betray them as truly malevolent: lies, and wrath.

Regarding the lies, I am not speaking simply of little while lies, or the lies we sometimes tell when caught off guard; I am speaking of deliberate, calculated, pre-meditated lies which, taken together, eventually spin a “web of deceit” that others can get trapped in — especially since the malevolent person speaks them with such confidence. Yes, the malevolent person is also living a break with reality, but it is often a self-induced break caused by telling so many lies that you eventually wind up believing them yourself. In a sense, a malevolent person is acting “like God”, trying to shape their external reality — through the agency of deceit — into something they can control, sometimes only for the thrill of controlling.

Regarding the wrath, the initial stages of this are usually a kind of unease when we are around the malevolent person, and we slowly we realise that, as much as we might like them, we also fear them — they are like a schoolyard bully, popular in some strange way as long as we are not on the receiving end of their attentions. But the wrath comes out most strongly when the malevolent person gets caught, and someone calls them on their pattern of deceit. It now becomes a test of wills. We need to understand that, for the malevolent person, their whole universe is essentially under attack — and they are the centre of that universe. The reaction, however, is rarely reasoned debate, but rather emotional violence. People sometimes tell me that when they confronted so-and-so about their behaviour, the look they received in return could chill the Sahara — there was real *hate* there. It was a look of pure evil — a look no one wishes to experience. So often we retreat — but this simply means that, in effect, the other will has won. Perhaps it was not a battle we felt was worth fighting — who want to fight? But still, the other side has won. So the malevolent person continues their malevolence.

Let me make something perfectly clear: I believe malevolence exists. I do not believe it is simply another form of psychological conditioning that people accidentally fall into. Sure, how we are raised etc. may have something to do with it. But while psychological disorders are a confusion of how to use means, malevolence is all about *ends*. Asking “What is the point of life?” generates horrifying answers from a malevolent person. Unlike the psychologically ill person, they are highly skilled at the various “means” available in life — this is how they are so successful at manipulation. What makes them different is that they have *chosen*, even if only on some very primitive level, that the regular rules do not apply to them. In a sense, they are the god of their own universe, and humility is not to be found in them.

Let me also point out that Satan, the Evil One, the Accuser, is also called “the father of lies,” and (as St. Peter says) he is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). When his attempts at deception and seduction fail, his wrath comes out….just watch Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” to see the extent of that wrath. I sometimes explain the Devil to little kids by saying that he is really just a big bully, who unfortunately hates us just because he is a bully, and Jesus is our big brother who defeated the bully and who will continue to protect us — as long as we don’t choose ourselves to go too far away from him so that the bully can get us again. But this analogy, while useful, does not really capture the true horror of the situation. The Devil and his demons have an ultimate form of a malevolent personality type, with their original angelic purity turned to evil.

God be praised, I have encountered very few malevolent personalities in my life — but I have encountered them (one tried to take me to court, not once, but twice — it’s quite a story), and more than once I have had to help others recognize them for what they are — the lies and the wrath, combined with a highly functional but highly manipulative lifestyle, are the classic indicators.

How do we deal with a malevolent personality? To start, we need to be informed. My book recommendation of choice is People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. The book has its limits, but because it is written from a faith perspective it doesn’t fall into the trap of dismissing malevolence as some relic of a pre-scientific religiosity. But once we are informed, then what?

Let me say that, first of all, attempting to gently reason with a malevolent person does *not* work. In fact, it simply feeds them. Often they will engage us in a discussion, even apologize or make excuses for their behaviour, and chalk it up to some sort of misunderstanding. But when we walk away confident that a new modus vivendi has been negotiated, this has simply given the malevolent person more power. Our happy expectations of a brighter future — in which we emotionally invest — gives them simply one more target for them to attack: our trust, and with it that emotional investment.

We also need to be wary of misapplied compassion. While I do *not* recommend any sympathy for the Devil, I *do* believe in compassion for persons who are malevolent, because they are still God’s children. But because such persons are so manipulative, common expressions of compassion do not work. We need to realise that confronting a malevolent person with their lies is often the most compassionate thing we can do. We are forcing them into reality, we are forcing the truth to be told, even if that truth is as harsh as “You are a liar.” By deconstructing their structures of deceit it is possible that we will provoke a wrathful reaction. But sometimes they burst into tears instead, with a “poor me” cry, and it makes us feel guilty. WARNING! This is just another attempt at manipulation and emotional blackmail. In such situation we need a “stern humility” — we must unwavering in our commitment to the truth of the situation. To call a liar a liar can actually be a gesture of humility and compassion, if in fact the other person is a liar and calling them on it helps them to no longer be rewarded by their lying.

Finally, we need to be sure we protect ourselves. Malevolent persons can try and destroy us, through causing emotional harm, damage to reputations, and the sowing of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). But this is truly one of those situations where the Truth really does set us free. We simply need to sow the truth as much and as effectively as they sow untruth.

As for loving our enemies, dealing with a malevolent personality is truly a tremendous test of this difficult but necessary virtue. Only grace can provide. Sometimes all we can do is pray for the person, but that is already a lot. As much as we need to surrender any prideful belief that we can cure this particular spiritual disease ourselves, we need to remember that there *is* a cure: the Cross of Christ, which is the ultimate victory over evil. The more we cling to Him on his cross, the more we can pick up our cross and face these difficult situations with the strength of his grace. And if there is one silver lining in all of this, when we come face to face with this kind of “devil” we also really come to understand why the cross was necessary….and why it is so beautiful.