Reflections: Can evil really change into good?

[3 minute read] (ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! πŸ™‚ )

There’s a scene in Avatar The Last Airbender (the fantastic original series β€” not the sorry excuse of a movie) where one of the villains decides to become good.

At one point, after making a mistake, he flops down onto the ground in frustration and yells “Why am I so bad at being good?!?”

Many other great series and movies explore this idea of “evil” people wanting to become “good”. Another example I especially loved is the duality of characters in the series Once Upon A Time. And also the moral struggles of a few characters in the series Suits.

There’s something particularly endearing about this type of character. We admire them for their determination to change. We empathize with them as they revert back to their “evil” tendencies every once in a while. We watch with fascination to get the answer to the question: Can people really change who they are?

On one hand, the “growth mindset” concept teaches us that we can improve in anything we want. The book Mindset argues that this goes for not just skills like math, sports, or languages, but also personality characteristics.

For example, I personally know people who have told me they used to be shy and insecure, but have learned to become more confident and extroverted.

But on the other hand, isn’t there a part of you that is unchangeable throughout your life? (Otherwise, who are “we” to begin with?) Water can evaporate into air or freeze into ice, but its chemical components don’t alter. It can condense or melt back into water at any moment.

I believe that all of our experiences shape us into who we are. We are the sum of all the experiences we have had and the decisions we have made. You can never undo these things β€” you can only add to them.

So the character in the Avatar The Last Airbender series can change into a kinder and more compassionate version of himself. But, he will never be able to be a “purely” good person, as if he had never been “evil”.

And in fact, I believe that he is a better person this way, rather than if he had been “good” right from his birth. He has experienced an incredibly wide range of emotions, intentions, and consequences. He is kind not because it’s his “default” setting, but through conscious choice. And he has to make this choice over and over again.

What are your thoughts on the idea of evil changing into kindness? Do you think it is possible? Have you seen any people do it? Share in the comments below!

ESL Notes (18 words / expressions)

Definitions written with reference to Cambridge Dictionary

Sorry excuse of a: something bad or not good quality. For example “a sorry excuse of a father” is someone who is not a good father. (Back to the text)

Flop down: to fall heavily. If I flop down onto my bed, I don’t lie down carefully or normally, but I just “let go” and let myself fall onto it. (Back to the text)

Yell: say something very loudly, because you’re angry, scared, or excited. (Back to the text)

Duality: having 2 different things, for example both “evil” and “good”. (Back to the text)

Struggles: difficulties. In my text, I use this as a noun, but it is also a verb: “he struggles with math.” (Back to the text)

Endearing: likeable / makes you like it. (Back to the text)

Empathize: understand how someone feels. (Back to the text)

Revert (back) to: go back to what you did before, usually something worse. For example, imagine someone who eats a lot of unhealthy food, but he is trying to be more healthy. He starts eating more vegetables and fruits. But one day he gives up and reverts back to eating junk food again. (Back to the text)

Tendencies: Something you do often and that’s natural to you. (Back to the text)

Mindset: your way of thinking and opinions. For example, you can have a positive mindset, which means you usually think in a positive way. (Back to the text)

Goes for: is true for. (Back to the text)

Evaporate: transform from water into air. (Back to the text)

Alter: another word for “change”. (I didn’t want to use “change” two times in a row). “Alter” usually means a small change. (Back to the text)

Condense: transform from air into water. (Back to the text)

Melt: transform from ice/solid into water. (Back to the text)

Sum: total. For example, 2 is the sum of 1 + 1. (Back to the text)

Undo: the opposite of “do”. For example, if I am drawing on an iPad and I draw a bad line, if I click the “undo” button, the last line I drew goes away. (Back to the text)

Default: original. (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • Think of something you think is really bad quality, and talk about it using “sorry excuse of a“. For example, if you know cars really well, is there a car you think is really bad and is a “sorry excuse of a car”?
  • Do you ever come home from work so tired, you just flop down onto the bed or couch?
  • Do you ever hear your neighbors yelling at each other?
  • What are some dualities you see in life? (For example, night and day, love and hate…)
  • What is a subject you struggled with a lot in school?
  • Think about a person you really like. What is endearing about them? (For example, one of my friends laughs at her own mistakes, which is really endearing because she is not very stressed and she is always positive and forgiving).
  • Can you easily empathize with characters in books and movies? Can you think of a character who you can really empathize with, because they are very similar to you?
  • Is there a new habit you’re trying to build, but it’s difficult because you often revert back to what you did before?
  • What are some of your habits? Talk about them using “tendency“. For example, I have a tendency to stay up late, because I have the most ideas in the evening.
  • Is it important for a person to work on their mindset?
  • At your work or in your school, is there a rule that goes for only certain people, but not everyone? For example, one of my friends works in a store. The manager wants everyone to arrive exactly on time. However, it seems that doesn’t go for her β€” she arrives late really often!
  • Think about your last vacation. Did you have to alter some of your plans because of bad weather, or unexpected things?
  • If it snows in the winter in your city, in what month does the snow usually melt?
  • Do you think honestly saying “sorry” can undo the pain you cause in a relationship?
  • What is your default mood? (What mood do you normally have, without trying to change it?)

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply!

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