The Nature of Evil
The following is from In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld, a book published by William Morrow in 1983, reporting on a federally-funded study, conducted by URSA Consulting on behalf of Youth Development Bureau of the Dept. of Health and Human Services, of teenage prostitution and social service agencies for runaway youth that Toby Johnson worked in with his friend, nicknamesake, and social service mentor Toby Marotta.
This excerpt, from the book's epilogue titled The Boon, describes Johnson's realization of the spiritual wisdom conveyed by the enlightening, fascinating, and at times frightening adventures he and Marotta shared in researching this highly-charged and difficult to understand social phenomenon. The wisdom suggests the paradoxical nature of human intention and the necessity for all people to look beyond their simplistic beliefs and opinions--especially regarding other people's sexual lives.
(Used copies of In Search of God are available from Internet resellers. Click here.
Suffering is the weight that keeps us grounded. It is what keeps God from waking up too quickly and recognizing who he, and we, all really are. It is also the goad and reminder that we can and should wake up. It forces us to reach out, to change our lives, to keep the perspectives always changing. We are all sailors drowning in the sea, hapless victims thrashing about in fear. What every drowning victim must remember is that when you stop thrashing about, you can float. But to do so, you must overcome your fear and stop resisting. That was my spiritual discovery in the sexual underworld.
That was also the political and social service discovery. There is pain and suffering in the underworld. Prostitution does irreparable damage to some lives. No one should have to have sex in order to survive. But prostitution can't be isolated from all the other problems in society. For some people the alternatives are worse than prostitution. What people imagine about prostitution is far worse than it really is. We can't stop prostitution by resisting it. Given the realities of our world we must accept it and understand it as the chosen life-style of some people whose rights are just as sacred as ours and who are, just as much as we, eyes of God in the world. Only then can we begin to change it, or better said, to watch it change. We can see the best of all possible worlds grow up where we least expected when we begin to allow that the best of all possible worlds doesn't look like what I-or you-think, but what a vast multitude of us, with many different opinions all create together when we wish the best for one another.
It may seem naive to say that in the end all we really need is love, and that love alone is capable of solving social problems. But that is the advice of higher authorities than I. Almost all the spiritual and philosophical teachers of East and West have agreed in the end that the saving power is love: love of life and love of one another. Love doesn't mean feeling maudlin sentimentality and it doesn't mean being free from pain and conflict. Love means finding the wonder in those we love. It means recognizing our mutuality and the common intention, however peculiarly inflected by its particular perspective, of the radical Self in each of us to be happy. In that sense, love means "raising our consciousness" and changing our attitudes.
We need police and we need social services; we need government and institutions. But the proliferation of programs and institutions won't solve our problems. These will not work unless we change our attitudes. Not law enforcement, family reunification, or social service provision, but only a change in the way they are perceived by society at large and treated by their customers will really alleviate the plight of the juvenile prostitutes.
In a way I am sorry I cannot end this book by saying that the solution to prostitution is contained in the following five point program. I could then detail the steps. But we don't know enough about the way things really work to design the perfect program: we don't know simple facts about life in the sexual underworld; we don't understand the role of sex in our physiological and psychological functioning; we certainly don't understand the dynamics of nonphysical reality (how prayer sometimes works and where miracles and healings come from); we don't understand the nature of truth. As society becomes more and more complex and we struggle to find institutional solutions, more and more five-point or ten-point or one-hundred-point programs are going to be suggested. And though I'm sure they'll all be wise, they won't work by themselves.
One night I was talking with Harry Nivens. I was about to leave San Francisco, my work on the research completed. I was working on the recommendations to be included in the final reports. I admitted to Harry that, while I thought the practical suggestions I was making good and even insightful, they were still too superficial. It was useful to suggest to social service agencies that they focus on kids in the sex-trade zones, using outreach workers in street work programs, that they hire gay-identified and ex-hooker personnel, that they seek non-government funding, that they cooperate with gay community agencies and cultivate relations with police and city government. "Those suggestions might help some individuals, but they really won't affect the social problem," I said, with a tone of resignation in my voice.
"Of course not," responded this paradoxical Wise Old Man, a patient I'd seen in the Tenderloin community mental health clinic where I'd worked, who, because he was so familiar with how this demimonde worked had become Toby's and my informant and guide in our research. "The problem isn't a problem with the system. You can't solve it by changing the system. Prostitution is a problem of consciousness."
I asked him to explain that.
"Well, people's basic attitudes toward life are what manifest as their reality. We're all worried about the future; we're all scared; we're all on the edge of survival. We believe in a world that is totally hung up on money. And most of us have stopped believing anything else matters. So what we see in the world is a lot of prostitution, because prostitution is equating basic human emotions like sex and love with money."
Harry had been a major source of information for me about life in the underworld. It was he who had pointed out to me in the first place that most of the street kids aren't really prostitutes in the usual sense. It was he who had made me realize that the social patterns of the low-life class are so radically different from those of the middle class that they really can't be explained in terms of middle-class patterns.
"Look, Toby," he said gently but firmly, "what you're calling 'the social problem of prostitution' for the kids is just getting by, making some bucks, and surviving. You may not like it, and it may not be good for them, but you can't ask them to stop surviving."
"But what did you mean when you said it was a problem of consciousness?"
"That in a world in which almost everybody is willing to prostitute themselves-I mean that they'll lie and cheat and they'll work godawful jobs that turn their brains to mush just for money and advancement-you're gonna see prostitution everywhere. Even religion prostitutes itself. All these TV preachers ever do is ask for money; they'll say anything if it'll keep the checks rolling in. In all these people are willing to sell their souls, it's not surprising they see that their children are willing to sell their bodies. Do you think in that kind of a world it's possible to see sex in any other way but as prostitution?"
"So, Harry, what do you do about it?" I asked.
"You have to look at things a different way." He paused, then asked, "Do you know what blessing is?"
I had a feeling that Harry was about to ratify the mystical notions I'd been thinking about in the past months, but been pushing back because they seemed a little crazy.
"To bless something is to make it holy," he went on without giving me time to answer. "But that doesn't change the object. It changes the way you see it. It means you see it in the light of God.
"That's what miracles and healing have always been about. The way to cure disease is to see it was an illusion in the first place and then to put love and holiness into it. I don't suppose you can put this in your report for the feds, but the way to solve prostitution is for all the do-gooders to go down to the Tenderloin and walk around blessing the kids for being there."
"But Harry," I objected, "the Tenderloin is full of evangelists, Jesus freaks, and Moral Majority missionaries already. They stand on the street corners and sing hymns about repentance. The kids just laugh at them. I don't think that does any good for anybody,"
"But I don't mean doing that. If those people are going to be down there, they ought to be practicing compassion, not preaching at the kids." They ought to be learning what makes the kids happy and feeling happy with them, wishing them well.
"That's what I meant about blessing. You don't change what you bless, you change the way you see it. It's the religious people who have to change. They're the ones responsible for all the problems. They've got to stop judging and disapproving. God created a beautiful world, God created sex for us to enjoy, It wasn't God that started religion, It was people. And they've used it to ruin God's beautiful world. They started fighting over whose opinion was correct and they turned the world into hell."
Harry's point may have been overstated, but in a way he was right. And in a way the whole purpose of this book has been to expand on that point. We live in "the best of all possible worlds" because this one is the only one that's real, because this one is a projection into three-dimensional space of the greater reality our religions hint at, and because from this one every other world is possible. But when we spend all our time condemning this world and praising some afterlife that nobody knows anything about, we just ruin the life we've got. The mystical teachings have always been about how to discover the Kingdom here and now, how to forgive sin--how to forgive God--and how to bless the world in spite of all the apparent suffering.
The problems that we face in the modern world are, more than anything else, a result of the freedom we have struggled so to attain: freedom from tyranny, freedom from ignorance, freedom from mere convention. That freedom means there is a greater range of possibility in our lives. And whenever there is greater possibility there will be some who choose even the ugliest alternative. But, in the long run, the freedom is more important than the individuals who make bad choices or are forced into unfortunate situations. For without the freedom we cannot fully love our lives.
All of us approach the world from a specific history, a specific place in time and space, a specific set of experiences. We are who we are. We each have a station. The goal of the religious life must be less to change our station to that of someone else (in order to live in that reality) than to work to sanctify and save the reality we perceive as our own. We do this by loving our own experience and by willing that all others love theirs. Thus we must not impose our reality on the others, but respect the rights of each to live the reality of his or her own choice. In fact, we must love their realities, or at least love that they have their own realities separate from ours. Judging another's life vulgar or stupid only makes our own life seem vulgar and stupid, for we must live in the world we create by our judgments.
The station from which some people will experience the world may seem to us terrible, sinful, immoral. But if, rather than hating them, we love them for choosing their lives their way, our world will change: we will see it peopled with responsible seekers of life experience, not with sinners. And curiously, I suspect, we will see the content of their searches actually change. The things we now think of as cruel, disrespectable, and disrespectful will gradually disappear, The solution to the modern narcissism is precisely the pluralism that is the necessary result of radical, enlightened individualism, For the pluralism demands that we respect one another's rights to lead different lives and hold different values and opinions-even about sex.
The sexual revolution isn't going to go away, teenagers are not going to stop having sex, prostitutes are not going to repent and go home, abortions won't stop, lesbians and gay men are not going to go back in the closet, women are not going to become subservient second-class citizens again, the nuclear family isn't going to be saved. Jesus isn't going to appear and champion the cause of the Moral Majority. But the Moral Majority is right that we have to keep the world from falling apart and we have to do something to alleviate some of the suffering in our world.
This suffering is, more than anything else, a symptom of "future shock." To those with psychological and spiritual insight it is obvious that we have to change our attitudes. We have to adjust to the future. We have to embrace it. And we have to invest it with meaning. My own experience has shown me that the meaning that can save the world is found when we discover God--the central Self, the Hero/Savior, the planetary Mind, the Great Companion and fellow-sufferer--incarnated in our own flesh and heaven manifested here and now.
The truth is that God is not so an external personality watching human life from above. Such primitive formulations simply don't make sense. God is intricately tied up with the human experience of consciousness. God is my experience of the greater reality of which my day-to-day perceptions are but an inkling. And I am God's experience of the greater reality--God's own being--as perceived from my particular vantage point. God's opinion of me is my opinion of myself. God's experience of me is my experience of myself. God's love of me is my love of myself. God's love of creation is my love of creation. And God's love of himself is my love of my own experience.
That is why all of existence deserves to be loved just as it is. In fact, it must be loved all the more where it seems unlovable. Jesus said there were two great commandments. The first is that we love God. The second, which he said is just the same, is that we love one another with the love of God. God's love of his creatures is his creatures' love of one another. What saves the world is God's love of the world. And God only loves the world in us, as us, through us. We save the world by loving it.
To love God and to love the world is a commandment precisely because it is not automatic or easy. Often the world does not appear lovable at all. That is when it needs saving. That is when it needs loving. We must remind ourselves that we bear the responsibility for saving the world by loving it no matter how appalled we are at it. (Though, of course, we must also love ourselves for being appalled.)
The best of all possible worlds is not how the world should be according to our opinions and standards, but how it would be if we stopped evaluating it and pushing it to meet those standards. More than the imperatives of moralists trying to get other people to live their way, what will save the world and make it Paradise is our loving and unconditional acceptance of our lives and our conditions just as they are right now, seeing them as manifestations of the divine activity creating and maintaining the universe, For, almost against common sense, if we began to love more and judge less, to be compassionate of others' lives, feeling their feelings, assumptions, views, likes, and dislikes as though they were our own, recognizing the others as reflexes of the same consciousness as we ourselves, gradually becoming detached from and unconcerned about views, values, and the like, beginning to affirm the right of every person to live just the way he or she wants to--if we did this, almost unbelievably, step by step, gradually at first and then faster and faster, we would be reversing the sin and fall of Adam and Eve, we would be transcending the knowledge of good and evil, and we would be restoring to its original visibility the goodness of the Garden.
Our world is beautiful beyond words. Our notions of morality and virtue describe not the conditions we must impose upon other people, but the quality of the world's beauty when we recognize it, when we close our eyes to the notions of good and evil, desirable and fearful, when we break from the Tar-baby and crucify our senses on the cross of space and time and grow eyes that see out of the wounds into Paradise. For behind all the suffering in the world of space and time, all the suffering inherent to incarnation, we are still in Paradise. We bring on all the evil in the world, all the pain in the sexual underworld by our resistance to being embodied. The way to get things to be the way we've always wanted is to take things just the way they are. The way to advance is to stop resisting. When we stop trying to pull it down to us, heaven will fall right on top of our heads.