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Heath
Ledger’s Joker is an evil genius:  unpredictable,
always a step or two ahead of the good guys, seemingly unbeatable. Definitely
not crazy. No, he is pure evil.

But we
know Batman will win in the end…don’t we?

It’s
kind of like how we know that Christ already broke the chains of sin and death;
the battle is already won. But meanwhile the Joker has Gotham City
tied in knots! We see evil all around us. Like the good folks of Gotham, we get discouraged. We turn against Batman and
lose faith in our system of justice.

There
is a psychological explanation for our discouragement.

As
psychologist Roy Baumeister puts it, “bad is stronger than good.” [1]He
doesn’t mean that bad will win in the end. What he means is that bad thoughts,
events, or feelings are stronger than good thoughts, events, or feelings. We
remember bad events more vividly than good ones, the mean things people say
hurt us deeply and are difficult to overcome, negative emotions are stronger
than positive ones, and bad reputations are easy to acquire (and difficult to
shake). This is why we tend to dwell on our mistakes and find it difficult to
combat negative stereotypes. If your parents called you lazy when you were a
child, you might have a hard time shaking that opinion of yourself even as a
hardworking adult.

The
metaphysical battle between good and evil is being waged on a personal level,
as we struggle each day to combat negativity and self-deprecating thoughts that
threaten to send us into a minor funk—or even depression.

Ultimately
good will prevail. But on a day-to-day level, if we are presented with an equal
number of good thoughts (or emotions, or comments, or events) as bad ones, the
bad will dominate. I can still remember the time in fifth grade when Sister
Julie Therese made fun of something I did, and everyone laughed. I can’t
remember anything else about fifth grade.

Not
only do we remember the bad or traumatic events more distinctly, we also react
more quickly, and with greater intensity to bad things. In fact, the disproportionately
strong reaction we have to something bad might have contributed to our
evolutionary success, suggests Baumeister.

If I
fail to appreciate the good, I am merely missing out on something. If I fail to
react appropriately to a threat, however, I may not survive. So survival favors
the stronger effect of bad things.

Some
people are also temperamentally more sensitive to the bad. By temperament, they
have a tendency to think too much, or to focus too much on the negative.
Hippocrates would call them melancholics. Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema of Yale University
calls them “ruminators.”[2]
Their physiological makeup is such that they are more sensitive to stimuli,
tend to react more intensely, have difficulty suppressing negative stimuli, and
are inclined to mull over and dwell upon the past or the future.

Women
tend to be ruminators. In fact, we think too much. We think about our
appearance, our relationships, our work. Over-thinking can lead to anxiety and
depression and serious physical problems.

But
whether we are melancholic, a “ruminator,” or simply tend to focus on the
negative, we can change our attitude. Affective neuroscience is studying the
way the brain affects our emotions. It may be that we can retrain our brain to
take different neural pathways. Just as exercise can transform our bodies, new
ways of thinking can transform negative thinking.

Focusing
on the negative can also be bad for your spiritual life. Father Frederick
William Faber, whose powerful Spiritual Conferences were written in the 1800s,
wrote about the hazards of dwelling on hurt feelings. Father Faber observes
keenly the path many of us take under the rule of sensitiveness:  we begin by imagining a slight or an offence,
where none had been. We exaggerate the offense, building an entire imaginary
history on a completely innocent remark or action. We place “monstrous
significance” on a chance phrase, and then “brood about it for years…From being
fanciful we pass to being suspicious…From being suspicious we pass to being umbrageous.
We grow moody and bitter. We add sulkiness to our suspicions. There is no
dealing with us.” [3]

The
true culprit may not be sensitivity (which is a good thing when not
inordinately self-focused) but the dwelling upon hurt feelings, over-thinking
and over-analyzing a careless remark or an odd glance, turning innocent
incidents into serious misdeeds of enormous significance, becoming discouraged
about problems instead of looking for solutions.

In
the end, the power of bad can be defeated by the sheer quantity of good things
in life, according to researchers. But we have to make a conscious effort to
combat the bad thoughts with good ones. Happy couples make at least five
positive comments to every one negative criticism. Authoritative (rather than punitive)
parenting helps children eventually become both disciplined and self-confident.
Depression can be effectively treated by retraining oneself to think in
positive, constructive ways.[4]

Father
Faber would prescribe prayer, the sacraments, and supernatural confidence. We gain
confidence by practicing it. Though we never relinquish our fight against evil
(beginning with the evil we find in ourselves), we can place our trust in God
and strive always to see the good in our neighbor.

And
that is what confounded The Joker in the end.




[1] Roy Baumeister et al., Bad is Stronger than Good.
Review of General Psychology, Vol. 5. No. 4., 2001.

[2] Susan
Nolen-Hoeksema, Women Who Think Too Much. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2003.

[3] Father
Faber, Spiritual Conferences. Rockford:
Tan Books, 1957. p 233.

[4] See, for
example, www.schematherapy.com.

(This post has been read 69 times)

1 Comment

  1. Josef-298914 August 2, 2008

    Good analogy about the battle between good and evil

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