Friday, September 13, 2013

13 September 2013

One of my mother's favorite sayings were: "There but for the grace of God go I"

The other was a little chestnut she got from her aunt:
There's so much good in the worst of us
And so much bad in the best of us
that it hardly behooves any of us
to talk about the rest of us.

She actually won some sort of Mother's Day contest with that as advice given to her by a maternal figure. It's common enough, but not quite as widespread as other sayings. I admit that I kind of used to roll my eyes when she'd say it, I think particularly because she was judgmental at times. I enjoyed the first saying, though. As a youngster, it seemed to acknowledge the fact that life is fickle and we are so fortunate to be where we are because life could be so much worse.

As I got older, I started to question it a bit more, because sometimes I heard this saying turned around, being used to justify bad things happening to people, as if God chose not to bestow His grace on some as He might for others. Karma is a bitch and God will judge seem to be two ways of saying the same thing, which is people who do bad things will have to pay in the end, and we really want that to happen, so we say it as if we really mean it and can bring it to bear by the force of our will.

Sin and karma have similar underpinnings, and I often I feel like people aren't looking at it from the more common and much older point of view which is that people suffer in this life as a result of sin or karmic retribution. Who knows what the souls of those children killed in violence were touched by, why they are suffering. Perhaps it is in payment of a debt. Or perhaps it is punishment for lack of faith. If you really believed in God and gave your life to him, He would protect you, or give you a way to help yourself.

I think this is a minority opinion, yet it does seem like when things work out for people, they assume that their own goodness and effort are at least part of the reason why. It's normal, but it can lead to a feeling of self righteousness and callousness. To me there but for the Grace of God go I just stripped that all away. It was probably my Presbyterian upbringing where I always felt that God was some alien creature whose ways were not to be understood. We didn't know why bad things happened to good people, we just felt blessed when they didn't happen to us.

All of this, though, is really beside the point of what I want to talk about, which is how I now understand and embrace my mother's other favorite saying in a way I couldn't when I was younger. It seems trite, it seems obvious. It seems designed to shut down conversation that could root out negativity that should be challenged. My mother probably used it this way at times. And yet, the longer I live, the more I realize people don't believe that there is good and bad in all of us, that we have the capacity, at least at some point in our lives, to do good and to do evil. Yet the very same people who are advocating putting down evil are using evil words: words that advocate torture, acting out in hate and anger to wreak vengeance. And scariest of all, to me, is that they don't see these feelings are the flip side of the coin.

I agree that we can have good intentions when we do bad things, which is different from bad intentions and doing bad things. But I cannot tell you how many times I have been reading some news story with commenters decrying the horrible things that are perpetrated by criminals, and then wanting the same or worse treatment for the criminal. Wanting violence and torture to be done to another person is probably a normal response in some cases, but this is why we continue to have a world full of violence and torture.

We talk about ending bullying, anti-bullying slogans are everywhere. Every time I walked into my daughter's middle school, I saw the results of their anti-bullying campaign with posters designed by the students, talking about how bad it was. They all had a common theme which is bullying is bad, bullies should realize they are hurting people and not do what they do. There was never any ownership of the problem or examination of how we should examine and root out the causes and effects of bullying. There was never any acknowledgement that the sometimes downright disrespectful treatment of the students by the teachers was the very thing they were campaigning against.

The same people who wring their hands and cry about bullying are sometimes the same people who are leading the fight against childhood obesity and feeling that a little shame is a good thing if it's for the greater good of weight loss. They may not even realize they are advocating shame and humiliation as tools, because they don't see themselves as the problem, they see themselves as the good. It doesn't hurt them so how can it possibly hurt a fat child who should know he is fat and want to do something about it.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen these stories where someone does something wrong, and people are advocating for twice the punishment to be visited upon the perpetrator. But then they also scream about how parents don't discipline and if parents just whooped their kids' asses, we wouldn't have these problems, as if discipline didn't come from the words to teach. Yet when there was a story about a woman who was found to be slapping a one year old baby, people thought all sorts of bodily damage and punishment should be visited upon her in addition to her jail sentence. And probably some of those very same people advocating torture think it's OK to slap their children as punishment, even children as young as a year old, if necessary.

If you can wish for torture to be done to others, then you have shown you have the capacity to desire bad for others. If you can humiliate a child with words, and punish with slapping you are a bully. If you desire for other people to be abused the way they abused, you are a a hypocrite. And that isn't wrong, actually, it's part of being human. Because there is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it really behooves all of us to examine our own contribution to this dynamic.