My First Theory of Goodness

My year is up. No more dodging the issue. It’s time for me to answer my own question: What is goodness? To do that, however, I have to first talk about God, moral codes and baseball.

Millions of people seek goodness in God. I’ve been blessed to know many folks who are devout and practice goodness so delightfully and well that I believe it’s absurd to assert, as some people do, that religion cannot be a path to goodness. I’ve known Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and those of other religions who are the embodiment of compassion and love. Far from being a detriment, their spiritual practices keep them on the goodness path.

But what about the others? What about those who use religion as a bludgeon? What about clergy who abuse children? What about ministers who use their influence to drain the faithful of money? And what about the fact that no matter how much you believe in God you still have the responsibility to choose: Which God? Which scripture? Which interpretation? God may be part of the answer, particularly for some, but God cannot be the whole answer.

Millions of people also seek goodness through secular moral codes. These lists of dos and don’ts are supposed to guide us when we’re confronted with ethical problems. As a young journalist, I took great comfort in the code I had been taught. I was so squeaky new to the job that I had no past experiences to drawn on. Journalism ethics gave me definite answers, and those answers worked, except when they didn’t.

At their essence, moral codes are lists of rules. Life, however, is messy, and its complexity makes it impossible to write a rule to match every situation. Even more distressing is the fact that rules don’t take human emotion into account. We all have emotional issues. We drag this mental baggage from situation to situation, and when our issues are triggered, logic and the guidance of law and code are impotent.

A Wall Street banker who was raised to believe a man’s worth equals his income may bend financial laws to the breaking point. Add to that situation a dash of child abuse and a full cup of emotional abuse, and this banker could be driven to do anything – smash the law, destroy his own business, bring down the economy, as long as he gets richer.

My father is a prime example of the problem of moral codes. He knew right from wrong. He desperately wanted to do right. He just couldn’t figure how to do it because his psychological problems got in the way.

God isn’t the answer. Moral codes aren’t the answer. What about baseball?

When I was a kid, everyone played ball in one form or another. There was Little League for the ambitious, and schoolyard ball for the rest of us.  “Baseball” also came in many forms: hardball for boys and softball for girls. We even devised our own game called curb ball. I lived in a suburb with pristine cement curbs. We played curb ball by throwing a rubber ball as hard as we could so that it would bounce off the curb. We ran the bases in the middle of the street and adopted the rules of baseball for our game.

Some kids were great ball players. Most of us were middling. I had a good arm. I could throw and catch, but I couldn’t hit worth a damn. Of course, I never practiced hitting. As a girl in the 1950s, I also never received a single word of advice about batting, a fact that still irritates me, but I digress.

Everyone played. Some kids had a natural talent for playing ball. Some practiced all the time and got great at it. Some kids received expert coaching and improved. Others of us didn’t. Baseball was and is a skill. Talent helps, but a player has to work hard to excel.

After 365 days on this journey, I’ve come to believe that goodness may also be a skill.  Like the ability to play baseball, almost all of us have the ability to be good. For the tiny fraction of the population that is psychopathic that may be impossible, but the rest of us don’t have an excuse, although we do come to goodness from different places.

Like Hall of Famers in the major leagues, some people seem to be born with a talent for goodness. Most of us aren’t. Some people think about goodness and practice their goodness skills constantly, and they get, well, good at it. Others don’t. Some of us get coaching and improve in our ability to do right over time, and some don’t. And like baseball players, we all have to learn how to deal with our emotions to succeed. (You think emotion isn’t part of baseball? Have you ever seen a homerun hitter choke in the 9th inning when the game is on the line?)

I think Ruth Grant is right when she says we all want to be good, but I believe that few of us (all of us?) know how to consistently commit goodness over time. Some of us frail humans are better at it than others, but we all struggle. If we are drawn to the secular approach, how do we decide which moral code is right and which is destructive? Which code and which rule do we apply to each situation? If we are drawn to the religious path, how do we choose between thousands of competing denominations, religions, clergy and interpretations? How do we know when our once-helpful choice has wandered off the path of goodness? When we’ve found the perfect path, then what do we do when our emotional issues rear their ugly heads? At some point (multiple points?) in our lives each of us has to exercise skill in the pursuit of goodness.

Viewing goodness as a skill leads to a multitude of implications. If goodness is a skill, then it can be taught, coached and nurtured, and anyone (sans psychopaths) can become good, do good and be good. And unlike playing ball, which requires a certain soundness of body, goodness can be practiced until the day we die. If goodness is a skill, then secular and religious approaches are not mutually exclusive, and do not have to be mutually antagonistic. Either approach can work as long as it is skillfully applied to life. Either approach can fail if you don’t study, practice or receive the guidance you need to succeed.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve let my own psychological needs delude me. (Daddy issues anyone?) But maybe not. If goodness is a skill that can be nurtured and developed, then all manner of things are possible. Humanity is not inherently evil.  The problems we see around us are not signs of the apocalypse – either religious or secular. Perhaps all of this is telling us that it’s time to grow up and learn something new.

I wrote an initial version of this post on May 21 and revised it on May 31. This is entitled a “first theory” because I have no idea where life and learning will take me next. Above all, I pray that I haven’t bricked either myself or The Goodness Project into a corner by posting this theory. Please let me know what you think of my ideas, and don’t hesitate to post your own answer to the question: What is goodness? I look forward to hearing from you.

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10 Responses to My First Theory of Goodness

  1. Carolyn says:

    I like it.

    It isn’t the complete answer that some may have been hoping for–you defined its type more than its meaning–but is a pragmatic answer. In a sense, if someone defined goodness, another could simply adopt it. But is that good for the adopter? Goodness is an experience, or a skill as you put it, which isn’t transferable from one situation to the next (or one person to the next) without adapting it to the needs of each situation. Your answer forces us to adapt it to ourselves, which is the best answer.

    And I love baseball.

    • dianesilver says:

      Interesting. I hadn’t thought of your interpretation, but thanks so much for explaining me to myself!

      I also know that this isn’t THE complete answer, if there is such a thing. Even if goodness is a skill, the devil is in the details. (How does one go about getting this skill? What role do moral codes or spiritual practices play? Which ones? Should we all get psychotherapy? How do we identify expert coaches/teachers and figure out which are awful ones? How do you practice this skill? And on and on and on.)

  2. Linda Herzberg says:

    I like your theory. I do not believe that religion is the only path to goodness. There are athiests and Wican people that I know who show goodness and many people would not agree with me because they do believe in religion as the road to goodness. My children played Magic and other card games that people believe are evil but they are good. People say playing first person shooter games make people not value live but my youngest does and he is very sensitive to other’s feelings and has a good moral code in him. Like you, I know people who use religion as a shield for what they do that would not be considered good by most people. Many of the boarding school on the reservations were run by various religious denomenations. There the children were beaten or put in isolation for wearing Indian clothing or speaking their native languages. Where is the goodness in that.

    As far as moral codes, I do try to follow them, but often they do not take into account all the nuances of human behavior. As a social worker in child abuse and neglect there were many times when codes did not tell me what to do. What was too much abuse or neglect and when should you take the child out of the home or put the child back? If one child was being abused and the others weren’t, should you just take the one who was abused, or all of them. Sometimes the child being abused reminded the parent of their ex- or of their parent, etc. and they were the “targeted child”. The parent may never abuse the other children. But do you take the risk. Are you doing right in leaving the child with a parent they want to be with or in taking them away and possibly saving them from abuse. When you take the targeted child away, are you really saving them from further abuse? The child often thinks they are the cause of the abuse. I had one child tell me they were being punished for telling because they were in foster care. Every once in a while a child will suffer abuse while in foster care so you are not saving them from abuse in that case.

    Your idea of goodness as a skill reminds me of a theory that compassion could be learned. If I remember right, you had a child help the child they had hurt. If they pushed the child down, and it resulted in a wound, the first child was to put a bandaid on the child they pushed and talk to the child about how it felt. I remember trying to teach my children about how the other person felt. I wanted them to have an internal code of goodness and morality.

    As a child, we think the world revolves around us and that we cause things to happen (like the child who thinks they caused the parent to abuse them because the child did something wrong). As we get older we gradually begin to realize that we cannot make other people do things because of our thoughts and that people should be able to control their own behavior. However, not all of us develop that way of thinking and that skill that you refer to.

    I think you are on the right track and look forward to discussing it more.

  3. dianesilver says:

    Fascinating comment, Linda. I love your detailed examples, especially the material about working with abused children. How did you figure out what to do in a situation with so many variables, and such awful consequences if you, the social worker, got it wrong?

    • Linda Herzberg says:

      I would take each situation as it came. Luckily I never left a child where they were hurt or died. Any Children’s Services Worker would be fired and probably sued if a child died. It was just a given, so many workers errored on the side of taking the child out of the home, which often is not needed. We were dammed if we did and dammed if we didn’t. Also, we might instigate the removal or placement back into the home, but the court might disagree and what the judge said was what was done. That was part of the stress of the situation. I had one case where the child told us things after she was placed in foster care but the court case was based solely on the babysitter’s testimony and the sitter did not show up for court so the child was returned home. I cried that day. It did not make any sense to me to send a child back in that case but it was the law.

      People would talk about ethics in workshops but no one ever covered these types of ethics which is a shame. They covered things that were pretty simple such as don’t have sex with your client. To me that is black and white. I want to know about the gray areas.

      When looking at returning a child, I would weigh the attitude and progress of a parent. I also looked at whether the parent took responsibility for their actions and what explanation they had for the incident. Did it make any sense or were they trying to play it off as nothing. I had a relationship with all my parents (and I considered it my duty to help them succeed). If I thought they would not abuse the child again I would fight for the child to go home, no matter what the juvenile officer and other service providers suggested. If I did not think they would follow through on what they learned and the children were in danger I would not recommend they return home. Sometimes I had to recommend return because the parents had done everything that we asked for (I made sure I put in the written service agreement (contract with the parents for the return of their children) all the services that I felt the parents needed). I also made sure the parents had a support system and agencies to call so that they could head off problems that would get us back in their lives. There were a few of my clients that remained or returned to the system.

      It was a very stressful job, but it really stretched my imagination, sense of justice and sense of goodness!

  4. Marcos Valdez says:

    This is very insightful. It’s not an angle I had previously considered but it definitely rings true.

    The sages of enduring religions and moral philosophies generally advocate daily prayer, meditation, and study of their sacred scripture. I’d venture that part of the utility of this is to keep the very concept of “striving to be good” at the forefront of a practitioner’s mind.

    Mastering complex physical skills require intense focus and repetitive practice until it becomes second nature. Even when one is a “master,” one never stops being a student. If goodness is a mental skill, it stands to reason it would require similar dedication. Our everyday experience seems to bear this out.

    The baseball allegory also reminds me of an opinion article I read some time ago. The author suggested that all children should take part in little league. His reasoning was that it taught him a lot of valuable life lessons about commitment, teamwork, sacrifice, determination, priorities, etc. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the author seemed to be of the opinion that that little league was the best, if not only way, to learn these lessons. He implied that those who had not taken part in it were missing something vital.

    As silly as it may sound, I remember taking umbrage at the idea that I was somehow deficient in character because my childhood did not include organized, competitive sports of any kind. I felt I was quite well adjusted anyway, thank you very much. The point of this is, the author seemed to think that his own developmental experience was THE way to mold a functioning member of society.

    The idea that religion (or, at least, spirituality) is necessary for morality is similar. It’s also understandable, if one has not been exposed to alternate paths. Linda’s comment about children not being able to step into other people’s shoes seems apt here. To some extent or another, none of us ever gets over this completely. When we have a life changing experience, it can be so emotionally powerful that we may easily fall under the illusion that it is something everyone needs to do to be whole.

    Again, this is an excellent insight. You may not be done (indeed, your definition suggests you can never be done!), but your year of study was definitely not spent in vain.

    P.S. @Linda, regarding violent games vs violent behavior:

    As a male, 18-35 (the core demographic of the video game market), I can confirm that your experience with your children is not abnormal. I play a lot of video games. A portion of the games I play are quite violent. That said, in the real world, I’m not even verbally confrontational, let alone physically violent.

  5. Pingback: What’s Next? | In Search of Goodness

  6. I definitely think you’re on to something. Most of the ways we’re taught to be good when we’re young have to do with not causing trouble in school and being quiet in certain circumstances. The kind of good you’re talking about encompasses so much more than that: standing up to stop harm against others, responding to an attack in a way that defuses the situation rather than escalating it, coming to terms with evil done to yourself without returning evil or hate.

    I find training in Aikido has given me a set of principles that help me work on being good. I’ve learned these principles with my body first — I know how to step off the line and let the attack go by, how to redirect it while still letting the other person do what they intended, how to enter and take a stand without escalating the conflict. One real advantage of Aikido training, as opposed to other practices, is that it’s necessary to train with a partner. You practice the principles with another real live human being. As I improve my ability to do this physically, I find I incorporate those principles into my life. (Some days I’m better than others; sometimes I blow up, while thinking to myself that this is not an Aiki response.)

    I’ve also found that various meditation practices — any discipline will do — help put me in a state of mind where I can face stressful situations and still respond in a calm manner. I think that calm state of mind is part of being good. It’s hard to think of anyone or anything else when stress is crowding all feeling out of you, but when you feel calm, you can recognize the distress in others and respond appropriately.

    So many ethical or religious codes seem to get rigid and to incorporate rules that might once have been good, but no longer have any usefulness. But if one reduces those rules to core principles — Jesus’s Golden Rule comes to mind — I think they can provide some assistance.

    After years of training in Aikido, I find I’m not sure how one learns to be good without a physical practice. Talking is good; talking helps put things in perspective. But we all need some method of incorporating the acts of goodness into our lives. Still, I’m sure there must be other ways of practice.

  7. Kiesa Kay says:

    Congratulations on completing day 365, a whole year of your quest! That’s wonderful. I’m so happy for you and it feels like an ongoing journey for you, too. I work as a forensic interviewer, talking to kids when they witness crimes or when allegations of child abuse or neglect occur. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to witness a lot of goodness, in the kids themselves, often in their families, and certainly in the people who help them. There’s a great deal of diversity in goodness, and yet at its core, I believe it is the fundamental ability to experience and express compassion, not only in dramatic times of adversity but also in everyday life. Of course, the definition changes day by day! I have enjoyed your blog very much. Thank you. Kiesa

  8. Pingback: Seeking Goodness In a New Way | In Search of Goodness

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