Alexander Sozhenitsyn died on Sunday. I never attempted to read The Gulag Archipelago, but I did read two of his other works: First Circle and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Yet neither of these books, affecting as they are, made as strong an impact on me as one single sentence.
Some thirty years ago, I was sitting in my assigned seat in the chapel at Wheaton College when our speaker for the day quoted Solzhenitsyn. I don't remember the identity of the speaker or the subject of the sermon, but I've never forgotten the statement. It is a quotation from Part II of The Gulag Archipelago:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and then all human hearts.
The profound truth in that sentence embedded itself in my very soul and has remained there ever since.
Human beings are capable of great good and great evil, and sometimes both extremes can be found in a single individual.
Even when we're talking about relatively ordinary people, the statement is still true. Each of us is capable of extraordinary generosity and almost unforgivable damage. And unless we recognize both the dark and light within ourselves, we are too apt to judge others, to demonize them as the evil one.
One thing that has helped me to understand the duality that lives within each of us is to recognize that my strengths and my weaknesses, my triumphs and my failings, all come from the same place. I'm not compartmentalized into the good Ruth and her evil twin. All of my actions are the outworking of my one and only self.
Let me give a couple of examples. I am a very verbal person. This means I can be articulate and expressive. I can explain things with clarity. It also means that unless I'm careful, I can dominate conversations or meetings. And when I was a teenager, I sometimes used my verbal ability to dole out scathing putdowns.
I'm sensitive and in tune with my emotions. The positive side to this is feeling empathy for other people and writing believable characters in my fiction. The negative side is having a thin skin when I am slighted or ignored. Sometimes I make the mistake of assuming that "it's all about me."
Do you see what I mean? In each case my strength has the potential to be misused and become a characteristic weakness.
Imagine the same thing on a grander scale. People with great leadership abilities have the temptation of abusing their power. Passionate, charismatic individuals may become adulterers. And so on and so on . . .
What I like about this way of viewing human nature is that when I become aware of a flaw, I don't have to despise myself. Instead, I simply have to find a way, with God's help, to use that trait more constructively.
The line separating good from evil passes through each and every human heart. But thanks be to God, he wants to redeem us in every way possible.