Most of the time, when I’m feeling depressed (like I am today), my mind ultimately wanders to the idea of goodness – what it is and isn’t, and why I don’t have it. I think a lot of people measure their lives by a vague concept of whether the good outweighs the bad, at least to some extent, because that’s how we understand the way the world operates in the simplest terms: this boy did a good job on his homework, but that girl had a bad attitude toward the teacher. By the time we have the complexity of intellect to actually parse the terms, the primary concept of the good-bad spectrum is ingrained and entrenched.
Of course, that’s not a useful real-world paradigm. To wit (I apologize here for the language, but I think this story is instructive): when my twin and I were about 4 years old, Brandon was just absolutely convinced in the deepest part of his soul that he had just invented a versatile and pleasant-sounding word. When the budding linguist enlightened our mom of this, she (likely holding back laughter) said “Brandon, that’s a naughty word! Don’t say that!” His response? “Mom, why can’t I say shit? I like shit! Shit is good! Shit-shit-shit!”
I sensed there was something magical, profound, even timeless about this beautiful word, so I looked up at my mother with doe-eyed innocence and wonder and asked her, “Mom, why can’t he say shit?” (At that point, I knew what I was doing.) I think mother had had enough, so she sternly forbade us to ever use that word again; I heeded her words, and have absolutely, positively never used that word since. I shit you not.
Around the same time, mom had a rather successful home daycare service. The other children would come over in the morning and stay through the afternoon, where we would all play games, sing songs, and learn together. It would have been idyllic for them if I didn’t have the playful desire to bite the ever-loving heck out of some of the kids’ arms and legs, to the point that some of their parents actually pulled their kids out of daycare. (The guilt is still palpable – I’ve long been a vegetarian.)
Even earlier than that, Brandon and I – recall our propensity for making up words – developed something of a language to communicate with each other, before we learned the actual human English language. Most of the phrases have been lost to the ether, but one of the words we used was, and I’ll try to do this phonetically, “why-dee-dee.” What that meant, in effect, was “trade”: as twins, we shared an awful lot of toys and playthings, and sometimes we’d want to swap. What would end up happening, though, is that I’d inevitably break whatever $2 piece of plastic I was enjoying, get upset, and ask my brother to exchange his toy for mine. I don’t remember any of this, but I frequently used my infant constitutional powers of barter to “why-dee-dee” Brandon out of a happy childhood. He still has the most generous, giving spirit of almost anyone I know. I think I helped to cultivate that.
Was he a “better” kid than I was? The swearing, the biting, the unethical trade practices – did that make me less than good? Worse, did that make me a bad child? I don’t want to delve into too much theology, as usual, but some friends and I were recently discussing the idea of goodness and sin – a loaded term if there ever was one – and what humankind’s default state is. You might expect the range of responses, from “born innocent but into sin” to “mostly good,” but none of the answers were satisfying to me. I live in a weird sort of paradox wherein I tend to reject the idea that there’s any amount of inherent or even latent goodness in me, while being careful to ascribe goodness to everyone else. This is not a veiled compliment: the way I see myself has destroyed relationships, caused cynicism and skepticism, and deeply damaged my soul and spirit.
The flight attendant always tells the passengers to put on their oxygen masks before they help anyone around them. It makes sense: you can’t help anyone if you’re passed out in your peanuts on the tray table. I live in a constantly depressurized cabin, running out of air, unable to be of any aid to those I’m surrounded with, if I’m unable to help myself – and my self-image – first.
The Catholic priest Henri J.M. Nouwen knew intimately the intersection between goodness and love. He struggled immensely with both: his depression and homosexuality might be considered (but probably aren’t, realistically) atypical of the clergy, and it’s perhaps for this reason that many of his writings are anchored to doubt, fear, and even unbelief. He writes,
Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody. I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.” Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.
Isn’t the Golden Rule a testament to this? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” we say: not “as you would do unto yourself.” Frankly, we do not treat ourselves the way we would like others to treat us. We do not treat ourselves the way we would treat our friends. We are rarely gracious enough to treat ourselves the way we would treat our worst enemies.
We tell ourselves that we’re small, sad, and stupid. We fill ourselves with food and drink we don’t need, our homes with trinkets and baubles that we don’t want, and our minds with thoughts that we can’t bear. We place people in positions of power in our minds and hearts who would seek to do us harm, even unintentionally. We reject the capacity for vulnerability that will lead to healing and life, and replace it with Nouwen’s description of the quest for authority that looks like an exit door. The moment we catch ourselves actually exercising our own responsibility for self-love and grace, we slap ourselves on the wrist and say “That’s pride.” Then we shame ourselves for showing actual, honest love to another human being under the rationale that that other human is ourselves, so the love doesn’t count, and we thrust the pendulum in the other direction – the direction of smallness, sadness, and stupidity.
Is that the way we would like others to treat us?
When my wife recognized that my alcoholism was feeding into my feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness, she loved me enough to tell me that I wasn’t loving myself. Here’s the rub, though: she didn’t guilt me into it by telling me that I was treating her badly – I wasn’t. She didn’t tell me I became physically or verbally abusive when I drank – I didn’t. She didn’t tell me I had become physically unhealthy from drinking too much – I hadn’t. And even if (God forbid) any or all of those things did happen to be true, I know Becky’s character, and that she would have said exactly what she told me, that sentence that at last cast a light into the cobwebbed corners of my misery and loneliness and exposed what was truly there:
“I love you. You are a good man. I want health for you.”
A song I really like by an artist I really like goes, “You are what you love / but not what loves you back.” That’s a pretty fun thought exercise: there’s a great scene in the movie High Fidelity that deals with the implications of a worldview in which people are what they like, not what they are like.
I don’t know that I need my identity to be the sum total of things I like and love, though. What if I have poor taste? I’d much rather watch Hot Rod for the 16th time than Moonlight, for example. What about people who are just head-over-heels for the notoriously and aggressively awful Don Henley? If they are what they love, they’re a big pile of that word that my brother made up. Literally.
Can what we love make us good or bad?
I make as little of an effort to disguise my faith as I make a huge effort not to be a pastor, preacher, or prophet. I’m none of those things, and I think the world is far worse off thanks to people who pretend to be those things and give bad theology, bad ideas, and bad advice. So feel free to reject what I’m about to say – or this entire blog post – out of hand. But in order for my worldview to work and for my faith to be active and encouraging, I need to believe in my heart’s darkest shadows that God is good. The theological imperative here doesn’t say anything about soteriology or sovereignty because it doesn’t have to: the only, and I mean only thing it necessitates for my purposes here, is that a good God can’t make bad.
But a good God can break bad. A good God can defy convention, raise holy hell, and take the unlovable and call it loved for no other reason than “because I said so.” When I was a child, I loathed it when my parents said that – I was looking for some semblance of logic, and I think all parents (not just mine, who are, by the way, incredible people) use it as a last resort when negotiations are breaking down. The beauty of the God I believe in is that it’s not the final word, but the first one:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
We can hem and haw about many aspects of God’s alleged goodness; indeed, the Big Problem is that the world is full of brokenness and hatred and evil and things that aren’t good, and that’s a fantastic discussion to have on another day. On the other end of the spectrum, my fundie friends will cry out “But what about God’s wrath? What about God’s judgment?” I don’t mean to suggest that these avenues aren’t worth traversing, but they miss the point that the primary hallmark of any sort of goodness, and our understanding of it on a blatantly human level, comes first and fully from a place of love.
It makes sense, then, that the answers to the question about whether people are mostly good or bad or innocent or guilty or saved or not fall so utterly flat to the point of absurdity – at least to me. While I’ll continue to wrestle with the balancing act of good and bad for the rest of my life, what matters most is that I’m loved. And so are you.