Too many times this year, I’ve left Paresky Commons and stepped into a courtyard where the flag is flying half-mast. With each news cycle bringing another tragedy to mourn, it seems that we are given less and less time to understand and reflect on the meaning of death. Often, this leads to desensitization — and that’s not our fault. When we are confronted so frequently by something so grave, each repetition loses a bit of the sting the first event brought. But in the other case, when death is not forgotten — when it remains with us throughout the day, throughout the week — it’s important that we don’t gloss over the nuance of how we react to the news. Because, too often, the dead become saints. They’re extolled for their virtues, and their flaws are forgotten. For the most part, this is due to how we see the “good” in people as something opposite from an intangible “evil.” The reality is that no situation is ever that simple, and it’s a dangerous mindset to think that one cannot exist alongside the other.
Of course, dismissing that myth is much easier said than done, partly because it’s so easy to take for granted. It’s a classic binary. We see the world in categories, and those categories become characters: liberal and conservative, citizen and foreigner, male and female — we believe in the parts and so we play them without thinking.
When I was a child, it was easy for me to assign the roles. My dad was the good guy, my stepdad the villain. When my parents divorced, my stepdad was filling shoes he wasn’t quite meant for. To me, he was taking a place — stealing something from my dad — and, in doing so, stealing a family from me. After their marriage, seeing more of him confirmed what I had thought. But when he started to lose his temper, when he took it out on me, my stepdad didn’t actually become any more evil — he just reaffirmed the role I’d already placed him in.
Each summer, I’d visit my dad in San Francisco and spend each day in awe of this man I barely knew. He was good, I thought, just because. That’s not to say my affection wasn’t deserved — I still love my dad, and for good reason, but his “goodness” was no more earned than it was just me finding what seemed a necessary counterpart to my stepdad: since the evil existed in New York, there had to be good in San Francisco. So, at nine, when I watched my dad lose his battle with colon cancer, I cried uncomplicated tears.
In May of 2016, I left class early. My teacher answered a phone call from the front desk, told me to pack my bag, and I joined my mom in the car not knowing what to expect. The day itself was unremarkable: the sky was dotted with clouds but mostly clear; it was just mildly warm. Maybe it’s fitting, then, that the news didn’t come with the same weight as it had when I was nine. When my dad died, it rained and I cried. When my stepdad died, I balanced between emotions — a sense of relief, a sense of complicated grief; I kept a blank stare that admitted nothing.
The car pulled into a driveway I didn’t recognize filled with some faces that I did — my stepbrothers: 10, 17, 20 years old, and their families. I felt out of place — if it was the bond of marriage that joined us, then what were we now? Was my younger stepbrother still my brother? He walked over to me, and I knew the answer as I held him in my arms, as I felt his sobs rise and fall on my chest.
Later that night, as he fell in and out of sleep on my lap, I watched history repeat itself. I saw my face in his, saw him cry just as I had at nine. And I realized, regardless of who my stepdad was or what impact he and his actions had on me, he was gone. I would not pretend that our past did not exist; I would not and still don’t forgive all the memories my stepdad has left me with. But I determined then, as my brother rubbed the last of the first set of tears from his eyes, that this man could not have been wholly evil. At least not in the sense that I imagined that word.
The reality is that “good” and “evil” are caricatures. They suggest absolutes that reality often fails to replicate. For all the times I felt scared to go home, there were just as many times that I listened with admiration as my stepdad related some advice or laughed as he cracked a joke. But because the nature of each of those words negates any sense of an in-between, because we imagine them so separately, I find it so hard to remember the good times. Any recollection of a happy memory seems to diminish the gravity of a painful one.
But I don’t think it has to. In my mind, there is a nuance that escapes these words, a nuance that the language we use should aim to address. When I relate stories of my family to my friends, they often jump to their own moral conclusions. Recognizing good and evil has become a badge of merit in itself — you’re a good judge of character. But if people are either sinners or saints, we end up excusing behavior that seems uncharacteristic of them. When Brock Turner was sentenced, for example, a large part of the leniency in his decision rested on the idea that seemingly “good” people don’t do evil things.
If we continue to believe in this myth of good and evil, if we continue to place an emphasis on that binary, we risk not only mischaracterizing those who lie somewhere in the middle, but also excusing acts that fall at either end. I don’t want to enforce these categories anymore. I’m done assigning inaccurate roles: good and evil just aren’t good enough.
Will Leggat is a three-year Upper from Brooklyn, N.Y. and an Associate Eighth Page Editor for The Phillipian. Contact the author at email@example.com.