Jekyll and Hyde Morality

Am I a good person?

This is a deep question of self reflection that is at the heart of the moral life.  It is also one of the most difficult to answer because the answer is covered in limited perspective and self-delusion.

Very often we like ourselves.  Yes, there are things that we wish we could improve and maybe there are some things about ourselves that we would go so far as to say we “hate.”  But we hate our imperfections so much primarily because we like ourselves.  We enjoy ourselves.  We are the heroes of our own stories and we always want the hero have a happy ending.

As a result, we compartmentalize our souls.  What I mean by that is that we see ourselves and our actions in parts and not as a whole.  We focus on our good qualities or our bad qualities as separate parts of ourselves but not as an insight of the total person.

What do I mean?

Have you ever complained to a friend about someone you know that is a huge gossip?  Never mind the fact that you are now engaging in that same behavior against that person.  It’s okay, you tell yourself, because I’m not REALLY gossiping, not like that person.

Have you have been looked at someone like Miley Cyrus and tsk-tsked at the runaway unbridled lust of this generation and then you spend way too much time letting your eyes linger over images that excite that same lust in you?  It’s not as bad, you say, because I’m not causing scandal by being publicly indecent.

We commonly call this problem hypocrisy, but it is much deeper than that.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his classic tale The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde many years ago.  But there is a deep insight into morality and the unity of the soul.

In the story, Dr. Jekyll is a kind physician who is sometimes plagued by wicked thoughts, as we all are.  His solution is to come up with a potion that would cause that evil to manifest itself (Mr. Hyde).  This would then allow him to satisfy his dark desires and then free himself from its nagging pull in his daily life.  Or as Oscar Wilde once said, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to get rid of it.”

When Hyde first appears, he is small and weak.  He must get by with the aid of a walking stick.  But the more his acts out, the stronger he becomes.  Soon, Jekyll turns into Hyde without the potion.  Then he must take the potion to turn back from Hyde to Jekyll.  Meanwhile Hyde gets stronger and dominates their life.

Stevenson accurately points out the mistake so many of us regarding vice.  We often excuse our bad habits.  Not always, but if we are honest, we wink at some of our “harmless” offenses.  Why?  Because we think that our bad actions don’t touch us.  It is something outside us that does not change who we are.  But like Jekyll, we could not be more wrong.

Our choices shape who we are.  But we make this artificial separation between what I do and who I am.  As C.S. Lewis once wrote:

“I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner. …I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life — namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.”

Maybe we drink a little too much or we have a bit too much of temper.  “Yeah, yeah, I have to work on it, but it’s just a small thing, right?”

The problem is that we our perspective is so limited that we often forget how our actions affect others.  Our little injuries and indifferences and whittle away at the character of the people close to us.  How often do we long for a kind word from someone we admire?  How much do we wish that the laziness of our co-worker would end and cease burdening us?

But isn’t that true about our behavior too?  Or do we excuse it because deep down, we believe we are good.

Jekyll thought that.  But the truth is that you are what you do.  Committing sin does not excise it from the soul.  It festers like a cancer.  This is why Paul wrote that “Anyone who sins becomes the slave of sin.” Hyde grew stronger because Jekyll chose to act like Hyde.

This reminds me of a story a friend of my told me: an Indian brave spoke to his chief and said that he felt like he had two wolves inside his spirit fighting for control.  One was noble and brave and kind.  The other was savage and lustful and greedy.  He asked his chief which wolf would win.  The chief answered: “Whichever one you feed.”

The same is true about us.  The more we give in to our sin, the more it will dominate.  The more we give in to God’s grace, the more it will dominate.  But we have to remember to remove the artificial partition we’ve erected in our soul between the good and the bad sides.  We are one person, with both light and darkness.  Sweeping our vices under the spiritual rug does not make them disappear.  It is only when we clearly see them in full light can we get rid of them.

We must become people of integrity.  We cannot put up one face to the world and another we wear when we are with friends or alone.   Jesus was like this.

As Frodo told Sam, “[Y]ou cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole…”

This is the business of integrity.  And it is our duty to face this truth directly.

We cannot Hyde.

Copyright © 2013, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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