The Soul-Crushing Boredom, Banality, etc., of Goodness

Goodness is hideously boring, banal, unsophisticated and ignorant of the realities of life, among many other things, or at least that’s what I’ve been told as I’ve journeyed on this quest. Not everyone has this attitude, but some do. As I’ve talked to more people about the topic, I’ve begun to hear what some see as the downside of goodness.

First, there’s this problem of one’s mother. Actually, it’s the problem of just about everyone’s mother, who would say: “Be a good girl.” OR “When I take you to the (fill in the blank), be good!” Of course, we all knew what that meant. We were to sit/stand still, be quiet, not fidget, don’t touch, say “please” and “thank you” and do absolutely everything the adults wanted us to do. No running, no jumping, no having fun. If that isn’t soul crushing, I don’t know what is.

Once we grew up, folks of various religious persuasions chanted, wheedled, pleaded,  exhorted and screamed at us to drop every notion we had ever had about morality or religion. They yelled at us to ignore every bit of our own life experiences, and to think and act exactly as they did. Because that would make us happy. Because if we didn’t allow them to impose their minds on our brains, we wouldn’t be good, and we would darn well be going to Hell or someplace equally painful, at least according to them.

There’s also the issue of sophistication vs naïveté, and how being concerned about goodness is supposed to be equivalent to being Pollyanna. The character in a 1913 novel was so good and so absurdly optimistic that her name has become synonymous with brain-dead innocence and the inability to see reality.  Jack Bauer, for example, is the ultimate anti-Pollyanna.

And then there’s that other definition of goodness, as in: I’ll be good and fulfill all my New Year’s resolutions this year. Other versions of this insidious form of goodness include: I’ll exercise/meditate/pray/write/diet very day! OR I won’t complain/say bad things/use swear words/think bad thoughts for a single day.

I hadn’t thought of this variation on the goodness theme until last week, when a friend turned to me at Sunday brunch and said: “I always try to be good, but I can never make it through more than a few days without falling down on the project.” When I asked what she meant by “good,” she explained that for her “goodness” was the notion that she did everything she thought she was supposed to do. In other words, she thought she was supposed to be an adult version of Mom’s Good Girl, who always ate her vegetables, cleaned her plate, cleaned her room, did her chores, was polite, sweet, quiet, etc, etc, ad nauseam. As an adult this translated into meditating, exercising and following other disciplines she thought were important.

These are certainly all ways we’ve used the word “good,” but are these truly goodness? Does my goodness really depend on whether or not I exercise every day or stay on a diet? My health might depend on that, but I doubt if my goodness does. No matter what we might say when we pop a brownie into our mouths, it really isn’t evil to consume chocolate, and it isn’t good to refrain from eating it.

I have to admit to being a tad worried about how the concept of goodness seems to have gotten twisted in our culture, or am I missing something? Do you agree that goodness has a bad reputation in the western world? If it does, is that justified? Does the concept of goodness have any place in the 21st Century?

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5 Responses to The Soul-Crushing Boredom, Banality, etc., of Goodness

  1. Poor maligned Pollyanna! She is one of my literary heroes and role models.

    Pollyanna was actually a wise, courageous, and tenacious child, who had been raised by a wise and loving father. She was spunky, unconventional, and thought for herself–way ahead of her time. She did not let others manipulate her or tell her what to think. She was far from naive, as the orphaned daughter of a poor minister, living with an aunt she’d never met who didn’t want her at all.

    Papa’s idea of “good” had been to find something to be grateful for, no matter what the situation. Her determination to do so in his memory was both a means of coping with great grief that was cruelly unacknowledged by the adults around her, and was a way of feeling an on-going connection with her beloved father.

    Aunty’s ideas of “good” were pretty soul-crushing, like your mothers’–not to mention physically dangerous if you’ve ever been in an attic room on a hot day and not allowed to open the windows. We learn at the end that Aunty’s bitterness had roots in ancient disappoints…a vivid demonstration of “hurt people hurt people” as Aunty takes out her unresolved anger and pain on everyone around her, codifying and compounding her misery and making sure everyone else shared it. It’s no mistake that when Aunty finally tries to “play the game” with Pollyanna, she finds relief from her age-old bitterness, gains a new attitude towards life, and her relationships with others improve. That’s pretty much the plan of all 12-step programs…and it has worked for millions, for many decades.

    We should all emulate Pollyanna’s determination (for it did not always come naturally) to find SOMETHING to rejoice about in every situation, and to share that
    delight with those who are downtrodden, sick, or just plain irritable and mean. She worked hard at keeping a positive attitude in difficult situations, not because all the situations would go away, but because it makes it easier to bear them. Sometimes it didn’t change the situation, sometimes it brought about unexpected benefits. Sometimes it got her in trouble with her aunt. But if you really read the story, it always beat the alternatives of giving up hope, or of becoming bitter like her aunt.

    I think it says something rather unpleasant about us, that our culture has turned Pollyanna’s name into an insult. When we ridicule Pollyanna, instead of understanding her as a positive spiritual role model, we make it painfully clear that we are much more like her bitter, unhappy, abusive, controlling aunt.

    I challenge anyone who denigrates Pollyanna to pick up the original book, and read it slowly from cover to cover. Put yourself in the shoes of that young girl, imagine yourself at that age, being thrown in those circumstances with very little support, and see how you would measure up. What coping mechanisms would you use? What would the long-term results be?

    Go ahead, call me Pollyanna! I’ll take it as the highest complement!

  2. dianesilver says:

    Natalya,

    Thanks so much for telling us about the real Pollyanna! I’ll admit it: I’ve never read the book and never wanted to because it sounded so boring, but then that idea apparently comes from the stereotype, not the actuality.

    Personally, I think a positive attitude is a great survival mechanism and an important part of life. At the same time, my personal experience is that always having to be good/see good/be positive is a quick route to insanity because such a command requires a soul to deny reality and destroy one’s own authenticity. Your comment has made me realize that I have no idea if this is what Pollyanna actually did in the original book, but I do want to acknowledge that this is the downside of always seeing good, no matter what name we give to such a practice.

    On the other hand, I do agree that it says something unpleasant about our culture that “Pollyanna” has become an insult and that the idea of goodness has become something to be shunned. I still don’t quite understand why, but I think it’s important to find out why so many people feel so turned off by goodness.

    Have we, as a culture, completely turned our collective backs on the idea that there is right and wrong, bad and good? Or, are we merely disgusted by the way some people still use these concepts as bludgeons, turned off by the misuses of the terms that occurred in the past, and uncertain about what to put in place of this missteps?

    Once again, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Only one more thing: My mother wasn’t “soul crushing” in any way. She always encouraged creativity, outside-the-box thinking and taking risks, although she didn’t have a lot of patience with fidgety little kids. My comment about mothers had to do more with what I’m hearing from other folks.

  3. Linda Roberts says:

    In my search for the meaning of “goodness” and how we can be and do good aside from the strictures of “Thou shalt not…”, I have turned to the instruction given to every newly-graduated physician. “First, do no harm”. In my midwifery practice, I ask myself if an intervention will cause harm to mother or baby, and if so, does the benefit outweigh the risk? This cautionary thought keeps my practice balanced and prods me to find solutions to problems that will indeed not cause harm in the process.

    In everyday life, it is also a place to start. Will my words cause harm? If so, can I find another way to say what I mean? Will my actions cause harm? Can I find another way?

    It is simplistic, but perhaps that in itself is a good thing.

  4. dianesilver says:

    Great point, Linda. Thanks for adding “do no harm” to the discussion. I do wonder if there are any limitations and/or problems with this approach.

  5. Linda Roberts says:

    Oh, certainly there are limitations to the “do no harm” thought. It is a starting point at best and must be tailored to the situation. It doesn’t address the need for actively doing good, nor does it address the occasional necessity of hurting another human being to prevent greater harm.

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