One of the things I love about my niece Sadie is that she believes that people are basically good. During our annual Christmas Eve dinner, we had an interesting conversation about Santa’s naughty list. Sadie believes that everyone deserves a gift because even if they are being bad at the moment, they have good in them, and that goodness can manifest itself at some point in the future. Although that’s not exactly how she said it.
I agreed with her that we are all capable of good, but reminded her that we are also capable of evil, and on a moment to moment basis, people have to choose between the two all the time. And once you cross that line and choose evil, it becomes easier to do so the next time around.
I was once more optimistic about the inherent goodness of people, but I have become less so, particularly in the last few years. Opinions about current events have become so polarized that it’s hard to distinguish good from evil. It seems so clear from each side’s perspective. How can they not tell the difference? How can their moral compass be so off? Maybe if I post a bunch of stuff on social media showing them how wrong they are they’ll eventually come to their senses.
I have wrestled with this question all my life, because I really want to be good. I don’t want to delude myself into thinking I’m doing good when I’m doing harm. I don’t want to make excuses to justify my behavior. But does being earnest make you see things more clearly? I try hard to see the other side’s perspective, try to understand how their idea of right can seem so wrong to me, but I can’t reconcile the discrepancy at times. Perhaps no one can be certain of their rightness.
Even messages that are supposed to be about kindness, gratitude, and acceptance–things that are meant to be said gently, lovingly–are sometimes shouted out like commands. Be kind, damn you! Be grateful, you selfish #&%@! Be more accepting like me, you terrible person!
Well, that’s how I hear them, at least. And I believe in the importance of kindness, gratitude, and acceptance. But it’s all in how you say something, isn’t it? It matters whether something comes from a place of love or judgment. It’s hard to take good advice that is not dispensed with compassion.
I do believe that it’s possible to bring out the basic goodness in people, but not by telling them what to do. If you want someone to be compassionate, show compassion. If you want them to be grateful, tell them how grateful you are for them. And if you want them to be accepting, let them know that you accept who they are, even if they feel differently. Goodness will not come about by telling people what to do. It has to be demonstrated by our own choices.
And ultimately, I do believe what Sadie said about Santa Claus, but for a slightly different reason. Every child gets a gift, not because they earned it by being good, but because someone loves them, regardless of whether they have been naughty or nice. And ultimately, it is love that transforms us.