Of all the books I was supposed to read in college, one of my favorites is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I think I still have my copy if you’d like to buy it. It’s like new. I can tell you that the first three pages are fantastic.
I’m not sure how I even know the plot except for a Bugs Bunny cartoon I once watched where Bugs meets Jekyll and Hyde. I suspect it’s just one of those stories that’s so ingrained in pop culture that we all know it even if we’ve never read the book.
You probably remember that timid Dr. Henry Jekyll was just your everyday, average chemist who longed to be free of his dark side. So, old Henry concocts a potion that changes him into the hideous Mr. Hyde, the repository of all of Jekyll’s nastiness. Hyde then goes out and indulges in a buffet of badness while Jekyll gets to live the respectable life of a doctor, guilt-free. Eventually, of course, the whole thing gets out of hand, and Hyde ends up destroying himself and Jekyll in the process.
I read on Wikipedia that Jekyll and Hyde has been adapted into 123 movies, plus countless other stage and radio dramas. The book was originally published in 1886. That means if you average it out, someone has retold this story once a year since it was published. Why is that? What is it that resonates with us so much about these characters and the plot?
It’s simple. We all know how it feels to wrestle with good and evil. Most of us lead what we would call essentially good lives, and we’re horrified when the nasty side of us comes out. We didn’t know we were capable of doing or saying or thinking that. Something inside us tells us there’s an objective standard of goodness from which we’ve fallen miserably short.
Of course, when you compare yourself with other people, good and evil is a relative thing. My nasty side could manifest itself as losing my temper and snapping at my kids, while for another person it might mean knocking over a liquor store and shooting the clerk.
Most of the time we feel okay about ourselves because we know as bad as we are, we could always be worse. We could always be like that other guy. Yet, something about grading our morality on a curve rings false. It’s like whistling past the graveyard to keep our fears at bay. However tame our dark side may look compared to others, we know when it rears its ugly head, that we’re not living as the person we were made to be.
The Bible paints our struggle more honestly than anywhere else I’ve seen. A guy named Paul once wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Henry Jekyll couldn’t have said it better himself.
The most frightening part about the Jekyll and Hyde story to me isn’t when the sinister Mr. Hyde is on the loose. It’s the fact that the innocent looking Jekyll had been hiding Hyde long before he developed his potion. The chemicals simply gave a physical form to the evil that had always lurked inside.
Some of us are experts at hiding Hyde. As we settle down and become respectable members of society we trade in spectacular sins for something more sophisticated and subtle. Spectacular sins are a greatest hits collection of human depravity. Sophisticated sins, on the other hand, are just as rotten, but are socially acceptable and hard to detect from the outside.
The spectacular sinner gets wasted at parties. The sophisticated sinner self-righteously judges him for doing so. Both are equally bad.
In his book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis said, “A self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”
Sometimes I think it’s easier to help the Mr. Hydes among us than the Jekylls. Those of who are publicly and blatantly out of control – the alcoholics and prostitutes and dime-store criminals – tend to eventually crash and crash hard. When we lose everything, when we bottom out, we’re finally ready for change.
The rest of, though, the proper looking Jekylls who indulge our pride, greed and judgmental hearts, have chosen a path that’s even more dangerous because on the outside we look fine. Inside, however, we’re mean-spirited, petty and full of ourselves.
So, where’s the hope for Jekyll and Hyde? The hope is in realizing that no matter how spectacular or sophisticated our badness, we’re all in the same boat. We all have something broken deep inside of us that needs to not just be repaired but ripped out and replaced. We all need a new heart, and there’s only one place I know I can get it.
I don’t get better by repressing my dark side or by releasing it. I get better by surrendering it, by admitting that on my own I’m stuck. When I get to that point, then God has room to work. Then I begin to change, not just on the outside but deep inside where it counts.