“And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4, NRSV).
The story of one man rising up against another in anger and resentment is a story that’s as old as history. This surely tells us something about what we human beings are like. We, unlike other animals on this earth, have the capacity to commit moral crimes against one another. This capacity for evil is “lurking at the door.” Yet, it is unclear how we may “master it”. In this two-part essay, we will examine the three main personality defects that we must master if we are to overcome the evil within all of us: arrogance, deceit, and resentment. In the second part, we will consider psychoanalytic theory to determine practical solutions to overcoming and mastering “the sin (that’s) lurking at the door.”
A bit of arrogance is hiding within all of us. Although we opt not to show it in public or even admit it to ourselves, there are grandiose feelings and dreams that are essential to the human psyche. This does not mean it must grip you, but it does mean you must be wary of this danger. It’s especially dangerous for highly intelligent individuals because the highest faculty of the psyche — the intellect — tends to fall in love with itself and its creations.
To illustrate this point, consider idealistic, intellectual types at universities and why their positions are less reasonable than you may think, given their intelligently crafted arguments. I’ve had many good conversations with these types and they’re often brutally intelligent. They’re more than capable of making coherent, compelling arguments, but I often think that their intelligence lacks psychological grounding. For example, idealistic intellectuals often emphasize and criticize the negative elements of society. That’s fair enough, there’s a lot of being criticized. They say “Western society is a tyrannical patriarchy and social position is determined by power.” But this is only half true. Western society is tyrannical in some ways but benevolent in other ways. Also, note that the best predictor of success in our society is intelligence. That’s not the same as power, because you actually want the intelligent people doing the high-status, complicated jobs because they’ll do the job better; you want those jobs done better because they’re important. That seems reasonable.
Idealistic intellectuals emphasize parts of society that are arbitrary and power-based. Those parts do exist, but in a smaller proportion in this society than in any other. They wish to eradicate all social tyranny and oppression, but this is the idealistic dream of an adolescent. I know that seems harsh, but Jean Piaget even identified this as a common feature of psychological development, at the end of adolescence. He calls it the “messianic complex.” The young adult comes to understand the world around her and believes that she must ‘save the world’. This is a noble aim and is actually pretty healthy, and mostly harmless. However, it is arrogant to think that you are capable of doing this. That’s because the world is much more complicated than this person imagines. It’s easy to see the flaws in a system that works, but it’s impossible to predict the unintended consequences of altering it.
Society should progress forward along socially responsible principles. However, it’s foolish to presume that radical transformation won’t have serious negative consequences. You might not think that this form of arrogance is particularly harmful or relevant to the motivation for evil. But if people identify — as they often do — with these arrogant ideologies, then they risk entering the working world with an inflated sense of what they will accomplish. This entitlement is part and parcel of the criticisms levied against younger generations today. When this expectation is not met when your sacrifices are met with “no regard” — as Cain’s was — you’ll find yourself bitter and angry.
When the world doesn’t match up to your expectations, and when your work isn’t being rewarded, it’s tempting to deceive and maneuver to get ahead. This is especially tempting if you believe the reason people get ahead in our society is through deception and manipulation. However, this kind of lie isn’t as harmful as lying to oneself. Sigmund Freud thought that the fundamental psychological neurosis was “repression,” which can be thought of as a sort of lie to oneself. This kind of psychological repression is often “projected” onto others. That is, you will interpret an internal feeling that you don’t wish to accept as the feeling of somebody else. For example, when your unconscious desire for power is repressed, you will perceive another as power-hungry, even if this isn’t the case. The conscious mind doesn’t want to accept the desire for power, but the desire is there nonetheless. So we interpret the feeling as someone else’s. This combination of arrogance and deceit/projection is commonplace in individuals who are bent on the undue criticism of society. It isn’t always the case, but if somebody does have repressed feelings, it’s easy to project that onto “society” as a whole.
I do not condemn the criticism of society, but only condemn a one-sided analysis of society. Further, even if the extent of oppression is much worse than most of us think, protesting and worrying about it isn’t actually going to help you that much in your personal life. You could spend that time putting together those things that are right in front of you, and if you do that, then you can eventually start to create enough influence to make meaningful change. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in social action. In fact, you might already be doing both; if so, that’s great. I’m merely critiquing those people who promote activism and radical social change, while their own lives are in shambles. I may be wrong, but I believe the best way to benefit society is to work on the small things in your own life, then proceed to larger things.
The probable reason that some idealistic intellectual types don’t put their lives together before trying to change society is that they aren’t fully committed to making society better. If they have unconscious resentments they aren’t dealing with, then their primary motivation might just be expressing the unconscious resentment they have towards the world — and probably their parents — onto society at large. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch because they’re struggling with an internal conflict between their egalitarian ideals and natural desire for power and understandable resentment. Deception, specifically self-deception, plagues your own conceptions of the world around you. When you lie, to yourself and others, the lie becomes a part of you or at least a part of your experience. It’s hard to keep track of these lies, and if you go deep enough into deception, people will learn to distrust you; and worse, you’ll learn to distrust yourself.
There are many reasons people are resentful. Often, college is when people conceptualize the tragedy of their life for the first time. To understand the world that we all inhabit, in all its atrocities, is a gut-wrenching endeavor. The atrocities of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the wars of the past hundred years are a testament to the horribly evil things human beings are capable of. Although those regimes are gone, it still shows what human beings — like you and me — are capable of. It’s no wonder why people condemn it. It’s understandable to think that it might be better if none of it existed at all. That’s precisely the philosophy that underlies deep resentment. This process doesn’t have to be articulated, but it’s nonetheless what’s acted out.
This is worsened if things aren’t going well for you, which will inevitably be the case at some point. Even if you avoid the unnecessary pain caused by your own insufficiencies — which is unlikely — you’re still subject to arbitrary tragedy. If you get dumped by your girlfriend, diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and fail a test all in the same month, you can understand what it’s like to feel the world turning against you. If you interpret the world as a fundamentally cruel place, setup for you to fail and suffer, you will come to resent the structure of being itself. You’ll deny the value of an existence that caused you to be here, suffering away, unable to escape your experience. If this doesn’t resonate with you, perhaps you’re a lot more optimistic than I am, but perhaps you will consider looking deeper into yourself. Whenever I have serious conversations about people’s lives, it doesn’t take too long to uncover heartbreaking tragedy. To be resentful of such tragedy seems understandable, even justifiable at times. Understanding the darkness within your own heart is a horrifying endeavor, but it’s necessary to overcome it. And take heart, because people are capable of overcoming a tremendous amount, and if you pursue this terrible journey, you’ll come to know that you’re much stronger than you might imagine.