I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The nature of goodness

Smiling rainbow
I just finished reading a really good book yesterday, South of Broad by Pat Conroy. That link will take you to Goodreads, and I found out that it was not universally enjoyed. Yes, there are problems with some of it (a very long book, too, 528 pages). But I enjoyed it nevertheless. And it got me to thinking about the nature of goodness.

It turns out that Conroy was a military brat, just like me, and he went to 11 different schools by the time he was 15, as the child of a career Marine Corps fighter pilot. He never had a home town until he moved to Beaufort, South Carolina and then attended The Citadel, the military school of South Carolina. He writes very lyrically about Charleston in this novel, and I as a writer was really struck by the way he describes places, bring them right out of the page and into vivid clarity. I found this in a book review by Chris Bohjalian in the Washington Post:
I should note that even though I felt stage-managed by Conroy's heavy hand, I still turned the pages with relish. Conroy is an immensely gifted stylist, and there are passages in the novel that are lush and beautiful and precise. No one can describe a tide or a sunset with his lyricism and exactitude. My sense is that the millions of readers who cherish Conroy's work won't be at all disappointed -- and nor will anyone who owns stock in Kleenex.
Pretty much sums up the book for me. But what has caused me to ponder the nature of goodness that was triggered by that book, is the whole juxtaposition of events in a life that cause us to be empathetic to the plights of others, or completely unmoved by them. Conroy was fired from his first job as a teacher because he refused to use corporal punishment on his students. I was surprised to find that 19 states still use this method, because I thought it was illegal everywhere. I myself have been on the receiving end of spankings, as most of us of a certain age grew up when it was thought to be the only way to discipline children. As a military brat, I somehow escaped being whacked in school, but I could have been. I spanked my own children because it was what you did in the sixties.

What makes anybody a good person? It's hard for me to conceive that physical punishment makes anybody a better person, but this is not a universal belief. It's hard for me to understand how might makes right, how a beating of any kind can actually cause anything more than shame and resentment. But then again, we all react differently to our life situations, so perhaps I'm wrong about that. I wonder what would modify bad behavior in someone who doesn't feel empathy for others. Perhaps some of my fellow bloggers who are teachers have a better idea and might share their thoughts with me. I hope so.

One thing that stands out for me in the novel is the protagonist, Leo, standing in front of a beautiful old home that he has just inherited from one of his long-time patrons on his paper route. The old man who died had become somewhat of a friend, and when he got sick Leo took care of him. He never told Leo anything about his plan, and he discovered the inheritance after the old man died. Leo ponders the circuitous path that got him to this place, one he could never have predicted.

It also made me wonder about the way the world works. Things that appear to be terrible and unjust can lead to avenues that could never have been predicted, ones that open to pathways that are beautiful and life-affirming. I am thinking right now about the recent presidential election in our country, with an outcome that seems scary and alarming to me, and realizing that I have no way of knowing the trajectory or outcome of this event. Although it looks bad to me as a liberal Democrat, the women's march in my home town a week ago was one of the most beautiful and wonderful experiences of my life. There was only joy and happiness all around me, with only the occasional negative protest sign. Most of them were lighthearted and uplifting, such as "Fight Truth Decay", "There Is No Planet B", "This Is a Sign," "We Shall Overcomb" and such. No angry riots and lots of smiles. I felt so much better just being there.

And who knows what is ahead for us? I realize that thinking the worst about the world and where we are going is counterproductive, hurting nobody but me. And if I will just lift up my eyes and take a look at the longer view, there are possibilities I cannot even imagine that might come out of our current political situation. Optimism is itself a tool that can make me feel better, and pessimism does the exact opposite. I find that eating right, exercising, and hanging out with friends over coffee helps, too. Charlie Chaplin once said, "You'll never find a rainbow by looking down."

"What day is it?"
"It's today," squeaked Piglet.
"My favorite day," said Pooh.
(thank you, A.A. Milne)

And mine, too. I am feeling the end of this post coming up, and I'm feeling all rainbow-y and optimistic. My partner still sleeps next to me, my tea is gone, and the coffee shop opens in a short while, and I know my pals will be gathering there soon. I am hoping that you will also ponder for a minute the nature of goodness, and how much of it comes naturally to you. Be well until next week, and don't forget to give your friends a smile or two.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I, too, see the goodness in people. I wish everyone would, too.

Linda Reeder said...

I guess I don't necessarily see goodness or lack of it in people. I just see who they are. We are all a mixture of the good and the bad, for lack of another term.
I think my introverted, introspective nature causes me to be realistic rather than idealistic.

As a teacher of young children, I did encounter some hard cases, where it was difficult to see much good in a child or two. You can't make them good, but you try very hard to give them the opportunity to be successful at something they accomplishment. Positive personal experience can change a person.

Right now I am finding it hard to see any good coming out of the Trump administration. This first week has been awful. But it has certainly spawned goodness in reaction to presidential actions. Yesterday the thousands of people protesting at airports, and the lawyers rushing to the aid of immigrants who have been caught in limbo by the ban of immigration has been heartwarming. Among many of us "marchers" there is a new bond of brotherhood and sisterhood, a caring and a willingness to watch out for each other.

Through pressure applied by phone calls, emails and letters, the president has already rescinded three of his presidential orders. This new activism is based on goodness, on taking up the causes of human rights and freedoms. We can only hope that goodness will prevail.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I have encountered some really evil people in my lifetime and it was hard for me to see goodness in them. Perhaps I should have looked harder but it would have been dangerous for me and my children.
We have such a sad story in our area, two mentally handicapped girls were raped in a group home by refugees brought here from Somalia by Lutheran Social Services. Background checks were run but they hadn't been in the country long enough to show anything. So they were hired as workers inside the group homes. I think they should be deported...but maybe they should not have been allowed into the US in the first place.
Corporal Punishment was used when I was in school. School should have been a safe place but it was not. My parents were "Spare the rod,spoil the child" generation. :( :(

Elephant's Child said...

I watch, I worry.
Despite knowing that most people are good.

Marie Smith said...

I think violence begets violence and resentment as you said. I fear for retailiation over this latest immigration move. Hiwever, it will sort itself out I am sure. A lot of good people are working on it. I am hopeful.

Arkansas Patti said...

I am normally a very optimistic person but that side of me has taken a serious hit since the election. For one of the few times I can remember, I have actually felt depression. But I am coming out of it. We do still have power and can use it. I plan to and I also plan to look up for those rainbows. Love this post.

Linda Myers said...

I am listening to both sides though I have my own opinions. What is relatively new to be is being insulted for my differing view. Still, we have been aroused from our complacent couches into a potential new era of activism, and that is a good thing.

Red said...

I did spank my kids. It was in the days when that was the norm, but it was wrong. However , I am strongly against using violence on children, students or adults. Positive, positive, positive! Violence is fast and easy but gets negative results most times.

The Furry Gnome said...

I've thought a lot over the years about 'goodness', how to be a 'good' person. It seems almost intuitive to me, but now I'm beginning to wonder. It's a good guide to how you behave yourself, even if the world is very strange around you! I share your political concerns, but as a Canadian feel hesitant to voice them.

Glenda Beall said...

My father used corporal punishment and did so when he was angry. He never hit me, but he did spank my little sister and she has never forgotten it. She did not feel she had done anything wrong, but he never gave her the opportunity to speak. He beat my brothers with a belt, but they never seemed to hold it against him. They did the same with their kids.
As a former teacher, I hated corporal punishment and never spanked a child. I sent the really difficult ones to the principal. There they sometimes got the paddle.
I am of the opinion that most people are basically good. Where I live in this lovely rural setting, people, strangers, are nice to me. They are good to me, in fact. And I try to expect the best from others. I am not usually disappointed. I have never met anyone like the new president. I can't imagine what life with that man must be like. He is rude to his wife, walking off and leaving her as if she were nobody to him. He seems to be arrogant and pompous, two traits I have trouble with. I feel tired all the time now. It seems that the world "is too much with us." But I am trying to concentrate on the good things in my life and can lose myself in researching my genealogy.

MsGraysra said...

A beautiful post....thank you, and I am a big Pat Conroy fan. Have yet to read "South of Broad" and it is calling my name.
Goodness seems to be my refuge as we pass through this difficult, painful, confusing time in history. Anger began to consume me, but now I have reverted to T.I.M.E. - this I must experience. The need to be closer to friends has become more important, as has my need to feel even closer to my grandchildren and family. It helps, and for sure, we need all the help we can find these days, as well as to give more to others.
Your thoughtful consideration and sharing is so special right now.

John's Island said...

Hi DJan, I enjoyed this post. As a teacher I wish I could answer your question, “I wonder what would modify bad behavior in someone who doesn't feel empathy for others.” I'm afraid I don't have a definitive answer. Over the years I encountered many instances of bad behavior, but the thing that made them challenging was that almost every one required some slightly different response. There was no “cure-all”. Often, the best results came from a long chat with the student to try to see things from their perspective and hopefully, get them to see things from mine. Whenever that worked it provided a special kind of encouragement.

Sally Wessely said...

I loved South of Broad. Of course, I love anything that Pat Conroy ever wrote and was heart broken when he passed away. He certainly had a way of presenting the human condition with all of its goodness and not-so-goodness in a way that made you think. His relationship with his father taught him a log about goodness and evil behavior and forgiveness. I think all of us have the capacity to do much good and much evil. We are broken people. All of us. In our brokenness, we have moment of grace that show up as goodness. Grace is the same as goodness to me. Love, goodness, grace, mercy are all connected in my mind.

These days require us to be wise, vigilant, and grounded. I'm trying hard not to be so overwhelmed by the political chaos around us that I don't remain grounded in my own beliefs.

Barb said...

A mentor suggested to me when I was a young woman about to take on a difficult caseload that there is ALWAYS something good but a person may have to actively look for it. Sometimes it's easier to naysay but to look for and find good, though it may take some work, always leads to a better result. You can only build something positive from good, so its worth the trouble of looking for it.