One of my favorite things to do is to listen to This American Life. If you haven’t tuned into it before, it is a radio program on NPR on Saturday’s (you can also download the podcast on iTunes) which offers real-to-life stories which can sometimes be funny, touching or thoughtful. Last week we drove down to South Carolina and when we take long trips like that, I usually listen to a bunch of episodes in a row. This time on our trip, I happened to listen to one episode which made me think about my own life.
The story was called DIY and you can listen to it if you click on the description below:
After four lawyers fail to get an innocent man out of prison, his friend takes on the case himself. He becomes a do-it-yourself investigator. He learns to read court records, he tracks down hard-to-find witnesses, he gets the real murderer to come forward with his story. In the end, he’s able to accomplish all sorts of things the police and the professionals can’t.
This story is amazing and sad all at the same time. It’s the story of a man who was innocent and had to endure 21 year of prison. It’s the story of a friend who believed in him so much he sacrificed many things to free him from an unwarranted sentence to life-in-prison.
In the story there was one part in particular that caught my attention. Early in the story, there is a detective who is investigating the murder of a young Jamaican man. In his laziness and desperation to solve the case, the detective believes whole-heartedly in the story of an eleven year old boy who everyone knows notoriously lies. Throughout the investigation, this detective also coerces others to indict a man who they also know did not commit the crime. The detective knows full-well the man he will send to prison is innocent, but he just wants to get the case off of his books. In the end, in these seemingly little things he does, this detective destroys two decades of a young man’s life.
For all intents and purposes, this detective had done an evil thing and this was most likely not an isolated event in his life. It was probably a pattern in his life. In these little things he did, in his laziness and coercion, this was the real man he was—he simply wasn’t a very good man at least not at this point in his life.
This is what caught my attention in listening to that part of the story — for most of us, it’s the little things we do or don’t do that make us into the people we become, either good or not so good.
Listening to that part of the story reminded me of that quote from C.S. Lewis that I posted last time on my blog:
Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.
When reading the book of Galatians, you find one of the most important verses in the Bible which offers us what some of these “little things” are. It simply, but powerfully says:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
For me this is the most difficult verse in all of Scripture. In each of these qualities, I discover who genuinely I am. The words are invasive, asking difficult questions of myself:
Genuinely, how loving am I—especially to those who are strangers and those that I am not close to? How good or kind am I, especially if someone has been harsh to me? Under pressure or when I don’t get my way, how patient am I? When no one is looking, how faithful or self-controlled am I? These are just some of the questions this verse asks of me and you.
In my life, like yours as well, it’s the little things that count. This is where this verse hits hardest. This is where we need to be most mindful.
Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” during her reporting of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Arendt was struck by Eichmann’s demeanor during the trial—he seemed so ordinary, no different than her next door neighbor. She learned during this time of research that people who carry out unspeakable crimes are usually ordinary individuals doing evil in the little things they are accomplices to.
Based off of Arendt’s premise, goodness, like evil, must also be banal—it is in the little things we do that make us good. It is in the day-to-day life interactions and acts that we do that make us into the people we become. In the end, what makes us good is not when someone is watching, but rather in the little and secret things of our lives. In times like these, this is what makes us good or not so good.
In: Spiritual Formation
Tags: banality of evil, DIY, goodness, Hannah Arendt, the fruit of the Spirit, This American Life