Flannery O’Connor’s short story, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, plays with the idea of goodness as conventionally understood. A family sets out on a holiday with grandmother in tow. Grandmother, although of good Christian stock, is manipulative and willful. En route, they hear that a murderer named the “Misfit” has escaped from prison, and she becomes afraid of running into him. At a gas station en route, the owner shares that he gave credit to a couple of guys down on their luck, but they all agree that a truly good man is hard to find. In the end, they do indeed have a fatal run-in with the Misfit. Grandmother tries to talk her way out of her demise by trying to convince the Misfit that underneath it all he’s a good man, and that if he only prayed to Jesus…yada yada. But he has no illusions about either him or Grandmother being good people. He confides to his two accomplices after ending her life, that she’d have been a good woman if only someone had been around to shoot her every minute of her life.”
This story came to mind following a solstice ceremony. I was led in a guided meditation deep within Earth, there to encounter a couple of snakes, which are mythologically associated with the emergence of all life on the planet. I was asked to inquire what it is that needed to die within me, in preparation for the new life waiting to bloom. I was caught off guard by the almost immediate appearance of the words, “Let go of the expectation of goodness”.
Possible meanings tumbled out of me. First, what came to mind was how much disappointment I had experienced over the course of a lifetime because I expected others to act from goodness. Over and over I was both surprised and disappointed. These repeated shocks issued in a creeping misanthropy. I could list a great many occasions of corruption, failures of integrity and outright evil, as likely we all could.
But why, I asked myself, would I assume that humans are good? I suppose from some kind of essentialist spiritual position whereby we’re all made in the image of God, one could say that there is an underlying goodness. But on the ground, the truth is that functionally, this divine image hasn’t impacted history to any great extent. Hell, in psychedelic ceremonies I saw that I had infinite capacity for evil and for good, and it was moment by moment choice – that determined how I treated others. Now, why I would choose good over evil is another great mystery. Still, this ceremony was inviting me to lose my naive belief that “people are basically good”.
I then had the thought that this generalized disappointment in humans is actually a legacy of specific disappointment with parents who failed to love adequately. This failure forms an indelible impression, and once established, we see it everywhere in the world partly to legitimize the image we’ve formed of ourselves as “disappointed” and partly to justify our unintegrated rage at our parents, which causes us to unconsciously carry the story that humans in general are depraved and irredeemable. And, to be fair, the legacy of trauma is evenly distributed among most of the population globally. This is why the church came up with the doctrine of original sin I suspect. Whatever criticisms I may have of it (and I do have a few) it gets full marks for taking evil seriously. When we are traumatized any goodness we can muster will be an artificial goodness, put in place to hide from the truth that our hearts are closed tight against love, like the Grandmother’s, which the Misfit saw through.
To give up the expectation that others are good does not necessarily mean becoming a misanthropic grump. It just means that without some serious trauma work humans will continue to hurt other humans while pretending, like Grandma, to be “good”.
But then I applied this death to the expectation of goodness directly to myself. I felt in my bones what a tyranny it has been expecting myself to be “good”. Even to the point of becoming a clergy person and carrying the burden of everybody else’s expectation of me being an exemplar of a “good” Christian. Jeezus! It almost makes me sick. I willingly took this on. And got “rewarded” with approval for fulfilling their expectation of what a good person looks like. I knew it was all crap and I did my damndest to portray my foibles and failures. But even that, I fear, was interpreted as: look how humble and honest our minister is, what a good man.
But I also got reprimanded when I acted outside those expectations of being an exemplar of goodness.
Small example. I really don’t like wearing a bicycle helmet. And honestly, I think it’s government overreach to make it a law or by-law. So, I never wore one. I’d tear up to the parking lot at the church hair flying in the breeze, and receive reprimands. But the one that always got me was: “You are an example for our children”. To which I actually wanted to respond, “Fuck off”. But I was “the good minister” and tried to charm my way out of it.
Bigger example. I decided to leave my marriage. Not “good” as I was still the minister of this church. Even though, at a deeper level than conventional “church” morality, it actually was good. It was an act of liberation from a loveless relationship. But there was hell to pay, eventuating in me resigning from the congregation. Which also was a good thing in retrospect. But the point being that these culturally conditioned notions of what is “good” are arbitrary constructions by institutions (family, church, medicine, education, economic, etc.) that have more to do with maintaining a superficial (non-disruptive) “harmony”. This is not true unity, but uniformity. Most families are the training ground to engender uniformity in preparation for being a good citizen of the state.
Pro athletes get this all the time. They are expected to be community pillars. They put on a public persona of being good, but behind the scenes, they get up to all kinds of un-exemplar like behaviours. And maybe they do because they their 50 million dollar contract didn’t include being a “good” person off the court. This expectation is a cultural contrivance, the strange trade-off for being an exceptional athlete and making huge amounts of money. Guess that’s why I always respected Dennis Rodman, who was his own person. His outrageous displays of sovereignty were often comical. He wasn’t afraid to play the fool, wear dresses, outrageous furs (how politically incorrect), colour his hair, upsetting the hyper-masculine image of what it means to be a man. I respected him. He was decidedly not going to be “good” for anybody.
But when it came right down to what he actually got paid to do, he was a fierce competitor for the Bulls, played his role as a defensive genius without resentment, and was a brother to his team mates in all the ways that it really mattered. He’s the kind of guy you’re glad is on your team and not the opposition. There’s something about that kind of goodness that gets short shrift. What, I wonder, was his secret?
Or Mohammed Ali. When he was Cassius Clay he didn’t perform “good” for the white man when it came time to be conscripted into an insane war in Viet Nam. He was put in prison for this failure to be “patriotic”, another name for being a “good” citizen?citizenship and “patriotism are carefully constructed mythic identities designed by nation states to invoke a mystical allegiance to the existing order, no matter how unjust that order might be. Ali’s goodness, like Rodman’s was deeper, a goodness grounded in the first place in what is true.
Thought experiment. What might happen to the church if it adopted the use of psychedelics sacramentally? But “good” people don’t use psychedelics. Yet, the testimony of practically everybody who has taken them ceremonially is that the reality of “G_d”, Creator, the Great Mystery becomes undeniable, more real than real. There is an opening to a goodness, beyond conventional constructions of what that means. On these medicines, first you got to get true. Goodness that is not grounded in truth is not goodness. It is a way to dodge the truth, about yourself and the world. Nothing would transform the church more dramatically in a “good” way than adopting these as sacred medicines, the way indigenous people have done for millennia. But even in “progressive” congregations doing so would transgress the culture of “good” Christians.
Then a biblical story that had always stumped me came to mind. A man approaches Jesus and addresses him: “Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” Seems reasonable enough. But Jesus first deals with the set up. He responds, “Why do you call me good? There is one that is good and that is God”. Who can say why Jesus responded this way? Maybe he sensed this guy was blowing smoke up in arse. Maybe he was sick and tired of having “goodness” projected onto him, of having to be an exemplary Jew before anybody would listen to him. Maybe this guy was being sarcastic. After all, Jesus already had a reputation of breaking the purity laws and holiness codes, and therefore was decidedly not a “good” Jew. Jesus may have been saying I’m unwilling to be trapped by conventional notions of goodness. I’d rather be unclean, unholy and free than to live into your image of goodness.
So Jesus’ first move is to do what is expected of any “good” Jew in response to the question. He tells the man to keep the commandments. The man checks them off one by one. Nailed everyone of those suckers as a youth. He’s a bona fide “good” Jew. Then comes the zinger. “You lack one thing. Go and empty out your retirement savings and give it all to the poor”.
Boom. The master has issued a challenge that is not reasonable. It goes right to the ego of this man, and most of us, for that matter. The survivor self (ego) has learned to perform “good” because his life depends on being perceived as such by those upon whom his life depends, initially the family, then the community ( friends, village, religious group), and even by strangers. “Goodness” in this sense is a response motivated by the story we tell ourselves that we will not be able to survive the humiliation of being labelled as “bad”/”not good”. Good is what the ego does. Easy peasy.
But this? I don’t know if Jesus was advocating poverty. I doubt it, but who knows? He himself is portrayed in the gospels as getting by without a “job”. Still, I rather think it’s possible that his directive to the man was aimed at what his ego was most attached to as the foundation of his security. The problem wasn’t that the man had money. The problem was that money had him. It was his true G_d.
Jesus’ challenge to him is the equivalent of what was being asked of me in the solstice ceremony. Eternal life (which to me means an inner knowing that death is not the end but a new beginning) requires a willingness to undergo a death?to die to whatever you are holding on to for dear life. To get your gods sorted. Even if it’s life itself that you’re clinging to. Let go.
This is not a metaphor. It’s an experience. It’s quite common with psychedelic journeys if you stick with it long enough. There comes a moment when you realize that the jig is up. You took this medicine and now it’s going to kill you. You should have listened to your mother who told you not to take the ayahuasca. You may see your hands and feet crumble to dust before your very eyes. You panic. There must be some mistake. Fuck me. Going, going. Gone. Turns out Jesus meant it when he told his friends, if you want to live with me you must also die with me.
“She would of been a good woman…” says the Misfit to his friends, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”.
The thing is, when you awaken from your death, you are overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude. Life! What a gift! Even the crappy stuff, even the suffering, even the people who hurt me, they are all expressions of life, the “leaping greenly trees and the blue true dream of sky, and everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes!”. I swear e.e. cummings was on acid when he wrote this poem. Maybe not, maybe we all get glimpses of life as it really is, the gift of it, before the veil of worry, and all of our stories of how unfair it all is, descend upon the glory like a grey mist.
When it came time in my journey under Earth to inquire into what wanted to bloom from the dying, the words came to me, “I am so lucky”. Which is the vernacular for gratitude. I was being invited into a practice of gratitude. The good that arises from the orientation of deep gratitude is not a culturally conditioned goodness. It’s not a survival response. It’s not about performing so that people will like me, or fitting in, and any of the nonsense that Mark Twain called “goodness, in the worst sense of the word.”
Survivor ego is not grateful. It is, by definition, hanging by a thread, afraid of death. Its MO is not gratitude. It’s survival. Any “goodness” that arises from ego is like the Grandmother’s goodness. Superficial and contrived, and a man like the Misfit who knew his own shadow intimately could smell the bullshit. The gun held to her head is reckoning with her own mortality, her own fear, her lovelessness, facing in the end all within her that her “goodness” hid from the world. If only she had been able to die before she was killed.
A good man is hard to find because nobody wants to die.