The Bad: Influences or Choices?

One of my staff colleagues speaks of the demonic, of possession, of exorcism. You’d have to go to him for the details, because I don’t presently care to get them. Very early in spiritual direction, almost three decades ago, I asked my director about it. Don’t go there, he advised in so many words. I got the impression that just chatting up the topic provided too many inroads. Focus on the light. Pray. Don’t get caught up in the peripherals, however fascinating they might seem.

I dated a nursing student in college who drew up my astrological chart. I know your birthday, she said, but if we knew the exact minute of your birth, I could do a really accurate chart. “12:59pm,” I said. Do you need my latitude and longitude, too? And we were off to the races of the occult, as one might say.

It was pretty harmless, but one thing she said struck me and has stuck with me for a long time. You have a virtuous exterior life, she commented. But you are attracted to the sullied, the polluted, and the dirty. My conservative friends would say that’s obvious: I dabble in professional progressivism.

My wife urges I avoid any semblance of gambling. She disliked when I won third prize in my first live backgammon tournament when we lived in Kansas City. I gave her the winnings, but she said she would prefer I not “gamble.” I respect her wishes. I play online for fun and occasional glory. No money. I know my wife doesn’t distinguish between the fine lines of buying into a tournament with cash prizes. I don’t play to win so much as I play to compete. Winning is one logical result of superior play. Another is inflicting as much difficulty on a superior opponent before the inevitable concession. When I play on the net, I do get to play many superior opponents. I play in three leagues, and 2012 has not gotten off to a stellar start. Ten wins, twenty-two losses, and not a lot of difficulty for even those opponents who are a close match.

But getting back to my colleague’s expertise, I sit unconvinced of the importance of the demonic. Does that make me more susceptible to evil? I might counter that blaming another entity for what’s wrong is rather convenient, and gets us off the hook. People are responsible for their own conduct. I think conduct produces consequences. It’s less karma than good parenting. I can make a choice to goof off, but eventually my unpreparedness will mean a bigger repair bill at the house, more of a crush for time when a project is finally due, or more making amends if I’ve let a friendship slide.

Does that mean unexplained bad things never happen? Not at all. I’m just not convinced that bad things are terribly important in the long run. Just this morning, I rolled a very fortunate double 3 (2.78% chance) that enabled me to get my two pieces off the bar, and capture in turn my opponent’s. Instead of losing the game and trailing in the match 3-0, the score was tied 1-1. Alas, it was a momentary bob above water. The match went 11-2 in my opponent’s favor.

I can rail against bad luck, but to what point? My software analysis confirmed my opponent out-lucked me 18 moves to 9. But I still made errors in the match. I can’t control the dice, but I can learn from my errors and strive to be a better player with what the dice give me to play.

I used to like chess best of all games. No luck whatsoever. Sheer skill. But in my middle age, I find myself more drawn to backgammon. Enough luck to give a weaker player much more hope than a weaker player of chess. And that bites the other way, too. I can get stung by an up-and-coming player, too. But I’m never quite the master of my fate, the way I was in chess.

In backgammon, one can convince oneself the wins are due to skill and the losses blamed on luck. Self-deception is a huge temptation, but ultimately, players indulging in that mindset will only handicap themselves and their future prospects. Consequences. Not luck. Not mean little red imps tipping the dice to send the unlucky, the unloved, on tilt.

As for the choice in the title, is evil an influence or a choice, I’m inclined to stick with the latter. We choose to be bad. The random universe gives us opportunities aplenty to treat as obstacles or as helping hands. I certainly don’t want to be the sort of Christian who pats myself on the back for the good and blames somebody else for my bad. And I’m good with taking good advice to avoid some areas on general principle. Places like Vegas. Things like winnings. Am I good on that?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to The Bad: Influences or Choices?

  1. Liam says:

    The disjunctive is misleading; it’s a conjunctive thing.

    That is, while much of our sin is the product of human weakness and internal temptation, there is such a thing as personified evil. I’ve known people I trust who can testify to encountering the presence of that, and in their testimony it is indelibly palpable and unmistakable. Discussing such things should *never* be done lightly. Ever. It’s that powerful a reality. I do not trust the spiritual wisdom or prudence of anyone who would discount that on the one hand or invoke it too readily on the other.

  2. John Drake says:

    Re-read Catechism #391-395.

  3. crystal says:

    I’ve never tired backgammon before – I’ve been playing scrabble with others, though. Winning seems to be a combo of luck and skill.

    In Ignatian spirituality and the discernment of spirits, the “bad spirit” and its influence play a part with which I’ve never really comes to terms. I wrote something about it a couple of years ago here …

  4. Todd says:

    John, Crystal, I don’t deny your references. I suppose I’m reticent about echoing Eve in Genesis 3. Sure, there are bad influences in our life, and some are even good people at heart. But if we accept seduction, isn’t it our fault? And if we dwell too much on “N, who made me do it,” aren’t we again in sin because we’re avoiding responsibility?

  5. crystal says:


    I do think it’s an excuse to say that one is influenced into doing bad things – I guess in a way that’s a lot of what the Spiritual Exercises is all about: learning how to make good choices, taking responsibility for those choices. I’m probably not explaining it very well :)

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