The Prison of Appearances: Evil, Good, Impossibility and Shame

By Aaron Tabacco (cross posted from his blog Quorum of the Outcasts)

The Use of the Term “Evil”

During the time I was dating the woman who would eventually become my wife, I remember distinctly a winter formal dance that she and I were jointly responsible for executing at the University of Oregon for the Latter-day Saint (LDS) campus youth. I focused on catering the event, Stephanie focused on design and music and we had a wonderful time. Because it was a formal dance near the holidays, we felt it would be a great idea to serve sparkling cider later in the evening.
At one point, in a staging area set up for photos, a number of our own little social group members…friends in senior year…gathered with what turned out to be wine glasses in hand for a wonderful group picture fit for all the scrapbooks. I had very little notice…literally getting pulled into the frame by Stephanie and as I saw the camera setting up I immediately panicked. I thought to myself “I am trying to be a righteous man and if I get caught in this photo with this wine glass it could ruin my life…there would be permanent, unexplainable evidence of me…standing in a group of people…appearing to be drinking. I CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN!”And so I stopped the photo…I am certain my friends felt me to be a totally self-righteous fool for making everyone put away the glasses which held nothing more than fizzy apple juice simply because I couldn’t bear the thought of even appearing to do evil. EVIL…I could never be caught associating with evil.
I completely acknowledge that by the commitments of the LDS world, it is against the teachings and beliefs to drink wine. But…does it actually qualify as evil to drink a glass of wine or to even appear to drink a glass of wine? Religious groups of all types prescribe and proscribe many practices that are designed to assist people to apply self-control, preserve health and family, and develop mindfulness in daily life. I do not argue with the LDS faith that the directive for members to abstain from alcohol is self-justifying and completely appropriate for their faith pathway. I myself come from a multigenerational line of alcoholics. I know the destruction possible through alcohol. The statements I am about to make here are not to imply that I feel that it is either right or wrong to drink wine. That is a question that must be answered by each and every individual within or without a faith background to make. This is true of all obligations and aspects of religious life. My question is simply, does the act of drinking a glass of wine, qualify as truly evil given the actual definitions of the word?
The Oxford Dictionary defines the term evil as profound immorality or wickedness. The LDS Bible Dictionary does not offer a definition of the term evil, however the Topical Guide offers the following synonyms related to the term: abomination ; bad ; carnal mind ; devil ; evildoer ; filthiness ; iniquity ; sin ; transgress ; wickedness. The Doctrine and Covenants, an essential part of the LDS scriptural cannon, makes associations between evil and action:8. We believe that the commission of crime should be punished according to the nature of the offense; that murder, treason, robbery, theft, and the breach of the general peace, in all respects, should be punished according to their criminality and their tendency to evil among men…(Doctrine and Covenants 134:8)What I gather from these sacred and secular definitions and applications of the term evil is that it is not a casual adjective to use. It implies grave, moral offense. Evil is linked not only to specific acts such as murder and treason, but it is also linked to outcomes of spiritual filthiness and iniquity. Evil is a term that should be reserved for the very darkest aspects of humanity. In my mind evil is best defined as the use of one’s own body, abilities or consciousness to cruelly harm or deprive another of life, health, choice, esteem, and hope. Evil, to me, is intentional and acts that are evil in character are those whose outcomes are so destructive and harmful that restitution is difficult at best, if not entirely impossible.
But something disturbingly uncomfortable happens when the term evil is used in the statement to avoid even the appearance of evil. The oldest Christian reference I can find for this statement is in the New Testament book of First Thessalonians: “Abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thess 5:22)”. In the modern era…this teaching was introduced by Harold B. Lee and utilized many times thereafter by such notables as James E. Faust who recalled an interaction with President Lee from his earlier life:“The best counsel I ever received about staying away from the edge came when, as a young married man, President Harold B. Lee called me to be a member of a bishopric. He said, “From now on, you must not only avoid evil, but also the appearance of evil.” He did not interpret that counsel. That was left to my conscience.”

What I have come to feel about this–this pairing of the words appearance and evil–is that it makes evil seem casual…easily accessible…a descriptor of commonness; and it takes away from the intended quality of the word which is more extreme and severe. Of course, this is my opinion, but I do believe that no one would hear or read this phrase and go away thinking “I must avoid the appearance of things like murder, treason, or torture”. Such behaviors, truly evil by the definitions offered, are most certainly not ever likely to cross the mind or experience of the majority of us on the planet. But rather, this thinking results in actions such the one I described from my own life: a faithful, compassion-minded 22 year-old me having a severe panic attack when confronted by a potential photograph of me doing absolutely nothing wrong at all. So with this pairing of terms, the potential for evil becomes commonplace without changing the extreme associations of true evil as vile, heinous and wicked. This application of the term evil transforms each of us universally flawed human beings making daily mistakes into ‘evil-doers’ committing severe crimes against God and humanity. We internalize the message that our daily human actions make us evil…completely lacking in godliness and morality…and as such we are positioned to feel extreme levels of guilt and shame.

The Nature of Shame

Shame is an emotional response to the perception of disappointing other people; of very negative feeling associate with being exposed as weak and imperfect and contemptible. We all have experienced embarrassment and shame at one point or another. But understanding shame and its affect upon our lives and choices is something only recently coming to light.

The currently and widely popular Dr. Brené Brown, a specialist in social science who studies shame and vulnerability, has explored these concepts in great depth. She has spent hundreds of hours engaged in interviewing women and men and analyzing shame and happiness and the different ways in which people respond to experiences of shortcoming. It is clear that shame has unfortunate consequences…it fuels a fire of self-loathing and discontent that eats away at our own internal abilities:

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

“Shame works like the zoom lens on a camera. When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling.” 

Shame then, is something we are taught to experience frequently and our own response to it is an internalizing one: we not only feel shame when we feel inadequate…but we are taught to hold it in, hide it, and as a result we isolate our true selves from everyone. In the context of LDS life, this ‘holding in’ of our shame…our admissions of imperfection…is reinforced by the ideal of avoiding the appearance of evil. Since we have associated evil with just about anything that feels inadequate within us, we start to find ourselves being painted into a corner. We start to become boxed in on two sides by the imperative to avoid negative appearances and the power of shame to internalize. And while there are certainly social consequences we experience, such as a hyper-focusing on materialism that suggests we are in fact, good people succeeding in our spiritual lives…we also harvest an entire basket of physical, spiritual and psychological consequences. We come to a place wherein we use perfectionism as a guiding principle of our lives. As Dr. Brown has discovered:

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” 

These discoveries of Dr. Brown are strengthened by evidence from many sources including the national level survey conducted by the independent association of Mental Health America which showed that Utah has the highest population of depressed persons among both adults and adolescents in all of the United States. Some Utah agencies have chosen to critique this data and I think that scientific critique is valid so I approve and agree that interpretation is highly subjective, even when using mathematical strategies of statistical analysis. However, few can argue with the prevalence and incidence of depression and depression treatment in Utah when compared with the rest of the United States. With a rate of over 10% of the population, this kind of prevalence literally fits the definition of a public health crisis.

The Appearance of Good

A few years ago, I was driving with a friend along a long stretch of busy highway through the Salt Lake Valley. She had placed into her audio system a recording of a talk given by a wise and charismatic woman who was musing over some of the problems we inadvertently create for our children as we engage in parenting them. I have tried now for quite some time to find the source to appropriately credit the author/speaker but to no avail. However she recalled a specific scenario common to all parents: siblings who are fighting. Her words went something like this:

“Stop that fighting…you cannot hit your brother! You need to apologize!”, says the parent with clarity and firmness.

“Sorry!” snaps the child in a snide and angry manner.

“SAY IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT!” presses the parent, in an effort to seek peace and compliance and put an end to the fight.

The offending child turns, softens her face and says quietly and sincerely “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you.”

And then, satisfied that all now appears well, the parent turns away and leaves them to their own devices. The parent KNOWS that the child was lying about being sorry. The authentic emotional response was one of genuine anger and dissatisfaction. And when the parent sees the first lie, the child is redirected…this time to develop one skill: to lie convincingly. Therefore…what the parent has taught reinforces and institutionalizes that what matters to them is only the appearance of good…the appearance of peace and external compliance. Each of them learns to in no way acknowledge the truth of the situation…the honesty of the emotional response…and even though ALL the parties left the scene knowing that there was no authenticity present, they left satisfied in the shared belief that all is well. And thus…the cycle begins and the value of appearance over honesty is reinforced. This need to have an adequately righteous or good appearance is strengthened by the mechanisms of shame.

“Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’; perfectionism is other-focused: ’What will they think?’”- Brené Brown

While I admit, this is only one relatively common example, the lesson here is one that should spark deep reflection in all of us. We are programmed not just to appear as though we are good, but we are programmed to believe that there is actual power in maintaining that appearance. We actually believe that it is the appearance that is the truth and we obsess about finding ways to consistently appear good, in denial of our own true nature. And in all that time it takes to focus on appearing good…we lose the opportunity to BE good. We lose the opportunity to develop our own internal pathway toward becoming persons capable of expressing our truths…good, bad, and ugly…in ways that connect us authentically as human beings. We deny ourselves the opportunity for true personal growth to move beyond that darkness with ourselves and others and become something more.

In the angry child example, the truth of the matter is found in the FIRST response of the child…the anger that led her to hit her brother. THAT is the truth. It is human. It is natural. And though it is not a desirable way to cope with the situation it is, at least, an authentic place to begin. When we can move beyond the programming to appear good by acknowledging the truth, even if the truth is dark or undesirable to us or others, at least we can learn authentic lessons from that. At least we can begin to understand our true weaknesses and strengths. And when we are free from an association that our actions fit the category of evil (which in most cases they don’t) then we can tackle our weakness from a place of compassion turned inward. We no longer fear exposing or sharing our vulnerability. We can learn, as the angry child could have that it is OK to be angry. It is OK to be frustrated. It is OK to have dark thoughts and feelings. But what is not OK is to act out in such a way as to damage ourselves, others, and the relationships between the two. What is not ok is to run away from those feelings rather than explore them. We should, rather, integrate them as honest attributes of our true selves, and then seek ways to master them and become truly better people. This is true for all things within us.

Guilt by Association

When we become mired in the tennis match between believing we are truly evil beings and believing in the desirability of appearing to be good, a number of horrific internal and external consequences emerge: Depression, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, inadequacy, guilt, anger, jealousy, and a constant striving for an unattainable appearance of goodness and perfection. We generate financial strains and social strains trying to continually have homes and vehicles and amenities that make us appear to have ‘perfect lives’. We behave in hollow ways that keep us from having authentic connections with our spouses, our children, our neighbors and all people in the world around us. Unfortunately this bi-directional struggle comes with yet another incorrect association that has grave spiritual and emotional consequences: the association of anticipated or even religiously promised blessings (outcomes) with the inauthentic application of appearing to be good. Because there are thousands of references linking authentic goodness to blessings, and because we have convinced ourselves that our appearances are actual goodness, we believe that we should have all the blessings that are promised: satisfying marriages, obedient children, financial security, health and well-being, feelings of self-worth and joy…all those things we have come to believe are evidence of a life of goodness.
But a funny thing happens: nothing at all. Yes, we may have some or many of these desired things…but for most there is often a grave, puzzling, frustrating dissatisfaction with life and self-loathing. We come to discover that something is wrong with the equation. This is one example of what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” A feeling of negativity, often subconscious, that what we believe and what we observe are not congruent or compatible in the expected way. Cognitive dissonance is extremely, physically upsetting to us. The already unpleasant feelings such as anxiety, inadequacy and depression are heightened, and we tend work the equation backward. In this case, because the other party involved in the equation is God, and God cannot be the one dropping the ball on His end of the deal, we assume the problem must be us. We begin to believe that we must indeed be evil in deeper, more shameful ways. And we push against that possible understanding by working even harder to appear good, conforming with all kinds of cultural definitions of what good should look like. Instead of leaning into the pain and fear and letting it reveal to us our areas for growth (as American Buddhist Pema Chodron teaches), we lean into the lie that we assume will save us. As you can imagine, this creates an impossible cycle. People become trapped; imprisoned by these four oppressive forces. I’ve created a simple figure to illustrate the point at which the prison is created and placed it below:

Opportunities for Escape

These direct, negative feelings and outcomes also present for us opportunities for deep reflection and a chance to honestly seek and answer the question “who is the real me?”  This is a question for which the LDS community-at-large could greatly benefit from continued, authentic connectivity with members of the LGBT community. Gay individuals, frankly, have had lifetimes of experiences with this battle of truth vs appearance. And as I have come to learn through my own process of coming out as gay at mid-life, I have learned that everyone, no matter who they are, has something to come out about. Essentially, we are all on the same journey of self-acceptance and betterment. We are all on the same journey of hiding and disclosing; of seeking courage through vulnerability and then escaping the prison of appearances. These skills which are so familiar to the gay community can be very useful to those who seek relief.

Unfortunately, this particular prison is a very comfortable one…and it can be terrifying to anyone seeking to leave to do so. In my opinion, this is one of the most important aspects of the overall cultural difficulty the LDS community experiences in associating with gay church members and non-church members: People who have clearly ‘come out’ and made it through to another milestone in their journey and practice of authenticity are quite threatening. I think that people who have come to terms with sharing their true nature and self with others must be perceived as the epitome of threat by those currently trapped in that prison of appearance. And frankly, when I consider this viewpoint I am filled with much more empathy and understanding for those who often reject me with such visceral responses. It takes genuine courage to be so vulnerable and honest when there are so many opposing forces to such…when all of the rules of the society state that being so open and honest is totally taboo…it is nothing short of a perceived impossibility which brings with it the fear of great potential losses of family, friends, identity, community, and respect. Most importantly, it is a direct confrontation of those human qualities within us which have been labeled as evil and we risk the most terrifying thing of all: exposure. And yet, as paradoxical as it may seem, it is in taking these risks and exposing our shortcomings and humanity and casting off the stigmatizing labels of evil that we find freedom. I do want to be clear that it is not my assertion that this mean individuals seeking freedom should feel compelled to leave the church. No one can direct the life path of another in or out of a religious community.In fact, I would honestly say I advocate for many exactly the opposite: STAY and BE. By being true and honest and vulnerable with others…by accepting shortcomings and honestly seeking to live better and to share the struggle to master self, others will find the strength to do so as well. And if and when people in our lives that we esteem so highly cast off all of the fears of appearances, it begins to strengthen our own courage to do so. However, for some, the best path may in fact be to leave their community. Regardless of the choice of the individual or family, the greatest gift that can come to the LDS community by honestly and meaningfully engaging gay persons is a cultural revolution that would remove all power from appearances. And in that change, honest connection and spirituality can return to their rightful places in the church society. As Dr. Brown has discovered, this connection between vulnerability and connectivity is vital for spirituality:

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” 

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

“ We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”

“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

I believe that I will end this little essay here, on these thought-provoking ideas of Dr. Brown. It is my own experience (and therefore in the terminology of my own LDS history, my testimony) that these things are true. I know, as well as anyone can, the spiritually destructive forces that create this prison of appearances and the freedom and restoration of joy, peace, compassion, and connection that come from moving beyond them and enacting courage through vulnerability. I recognize that the path forward for each person confronted by such a choice to be courageous is different and as such, whether a person decides to stay within or grow beyond their own affiliations and historical beliefs is as personal and self-defining as nearly any major life choice. Such paths are unique to each of us and by applying the fundamental principle of free agency we must each learn to honor and respect those journeys. At the same time, recognizing those forces which constrain us and limit us and ultimately poison our progression toward the lives and spiritually relevant afterlives we seek is something worthy of sharing, one with another.


Aaron Tabacco is a father of three teenage sons in the Pacific Northwest who came out three years ago in the context of a 15-year LDS marriage. He and his entire family, including his former wife, remain fiercely devoted to each other and have found happiness through authenticity, compassion, and courage.

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