Any search for goodness is probably doomed to wander through the wilds of religion at some point. Variations on political themes will undoubtedly slither through the under brush. Philosophies, moral codes, science and clashing systems of ethics can be expected to pounce more than once on the unsuspecting seeker. All those things have happened to me since I launched this quest on June 1.
Most days this feels like chaos and blood sport. I’m beginning to wonder, though, if there’s something wonderful about the fact that I first conceived of my destination as being the disarmingly vague concept of “goodness.” I could have been decided to search for God, one true morality, or the right kind of code for living.
I’m not claiming any particular brilliance here, only that an accident of thought, a quirk of the mind led me to decide that I was seeking “goodness.” And that decision — even the title of this blog — has consequences for my quest.
A search for God might well have built a path to religion or, if I’d taken a different turn, to atheism. And I would have seen those two limited views as the only conclusions I could reach. A search for the right philosophy, politics, ethics, moral code, science might well have laid down paving stones to iron-rigid rules, codes, political parties and even a one-size-fits-all notion of using brain scans to determine how human beings can and should flourish. (And yes, that’s an underhanded swipe at Sam Harris.)
Instead, I committed the cardinal sin of writing: I got vague. “Goodness” is so blurry, misty obscure that there are no obvious answers, and perhaps not even a single answer. Oh my, that feels both frightening and liberating.
It’s frightening because no one answer leads to no undemanding solutions, no easily identifiable good guys and bad guys, no obviously right courses of action and to feeling like the bare wood floor underneath my chair is cracking open, and me, my chair and my computer are tumbling ass over heels into, well, what?
It’s liberating because no one answer leads to the possibility that the vast mountain range of human differences can be taken into account in determining goodness. The global population is now around 6.9 billion. Our differences in culture, language, religion, code, genetics, education, politics, governments, economies, life experiences, psychologies and even childhoods are humongous.
How can a one-size-fits-all approach to goodness fit every single one of these billions of people? I suspect there are universals. Compassion must be one. But can’t we also accept the variety of human needs and expression? If a Catholic, fundamentalist, atheist, Hindu and pagan all live lives of compassion and service to their fellow human beings, can’t we admit that all are good people, and all are walking paths of goodness? Not allowing for that possibility is the fatal flaw in religious and atheist fundamentalism of all sorts. It’s the sinkhole underneath every form of absolutism.
So, here’s the first lesson I’ve learned in these past five months: I believe in the human right and human need to practice goodness in different ways.