By Sarah Nyhan
You can be right or you can be in relationship?
Maybe. Still figuring this one out.
Probably it’s more like one of my favorite quotes from Jane Austen: “You have drawn two pretty pictures; but I think there may be a third – a something between the do-nothing and the do-all.”
In any event, I am learning that my old way of labeling people as merely good or bad is not working anymore after letting this already included message sink in. Probably it never worked. I remember a former friend previously saying, “You’re so damn black and white, Sarah.”
I have realized that unfortunately people who do the most heinous things can also do very good things. And vice versa – those who are generally known to do mostly good things can do something really hurtful every now and then. This is being human.
I thought before that some people were good and some people were bad. You just had to find out who was who. Well, I’ll tell you how far that gets: eventually you end up totally alone and even loathing yourself.
I think everyone will disappoint you at some point. I heard I think Russell Brand say that expectations are akin to fantasies. And I have been guilty for decades of holding people hostage to my expectations/fantasies.
Now that is not to say that there isn’t good and bad behavior. Although even this has been challenged for me. I was raised to believe that certain cultural norms were good or bad. I have had to learn that just isn’t so. If a male wasn’t raised to open and hold a door for a woman, that doesn’t mean he is a bad person. That is only a cultural norm. Another example is even leaving the toilet seat up. Or sending thank you cards. Or not cutting in front of someone in traffic. All of these are just cultural norms. As America is diversified by people from all over the world, I have had to come to the realization that the world I grew up in has changed and many people are not going to do the things I was raised to do. But that doesn’t make them bad people. Or good people for that matter. I could continue on that subject, but not today.
Yet we know there are truly some good and bad behaviors. For instance, I’d say across the world humans know it is good to provide for children and elders. People across the world know it is bad to hit someone – especially if they are the weaker party. People know it’s bad to murder. Etc.
But there is a whole lot out there that I have had to take off the table. Did you know a person isn’t bad if they don’t go to church? And not good if they go to church every day either. Etc. You get the idea.
But that being said, why are we so compelled to label people as good or bad? I guess I can only speak for myself. For me, I think in truth, I am more so attempting to categorize people as safe or unsafe. And that opens a huge can of worms, gets to the heart of the matter.
This might change in the future, but for now I’ve determined that no one is categorically completely safe. This realization can initally lead to a lot of panic, anxiety, and depression. But I’ve learned that the more I accept this human state in all of us – the more personal responsibility I take for my own safety. This is opposed to failing in attempting to make everyone else responsible for my safety.
Now again, this is another can of worms. I would like to clarify that children are not responsible for their own safety. It’s the responsibility of ALL adults to keep children safe until they can do so for themselves. The same with others who need protection: the blind and those who are are challenged in other ways that leave them vulnerable in ways where they are unable to do for themselves.
But at some point most of us have the capability to keep ourselves out of a lot of trouble. But this means standing up, claiming our power, and saying no. Something that I have found is not taught or encouraged in group situations, including a lot of churches.
We can go on and on about #metoo. I think the conversation is very helpful. But women, at some point we have to stop tolerating the bullshit we accept from these men. We do ourselves and the rest of women a diservice when we allow a man to disrespect any of us in any way. I am first to say guilty as charged.
Hear me out: if I go down a dark alley at night in a mini skirt and get raped – it was NEVER my fault. I should be able to walk down a street naked and not get attacked. The attacker is the only one to blame.
But if I hear my girlfriend has a guy who cheated on her, hit her, and stole her stuff – and I am trying to get his attention – shame on him still – but shame on me also!
These are extreme examples to prove a point. But this plays out in everyday situations. How many times does our gut tell us something and we ignore it? Because the person looked normal enough or played the part. And then on the opposite side, we take this to unnecessary extremes and discriminate against people for simply how they look.
It gets even more complicated when you realize some people are safe only to a point. How do you balance interacting with them without encouraging them any further? Realizing they aren’t good or bad. They are just human – and yet every one of all the billions of us are uniquely different.
What does this look like day to day? Mainly what hills do we want to die on? What is important and why? Is someone actually being bad to me or is it my ego wanting to scream, “Off with their heads!”? Am I scared? Are there other options?
Nobody can tell YOU how to answer these questions. And the answers will probably change over time. You do better when you know better. Experience and life teach us new lessons every day. So we are always growing.
What this looks like for me now is setting my own standards for the first time in my life. Versus always looking to others for approval or direction. And not apologizing for that. Yet, being prepared to accept whatever consequences may ensue.
It also looks like allowing certain people back into my life but only to certain extents. You don’t give your car keys to a toddler. In like manner, people now have to earn my trust. Whereas before I gave them way too much benefit of the doubt and unfortunately some people knew and abused that.
I blame the church in some sense for this. I attended a church that taught love believes the best to the point where it allowed opportunistic wolves to fleece the flock at times. Or we preach forgiveness way past the point of again serving up the flock on a plate for wolves to devour.
There has to be wisdom and balance. It would be so nice to just be able to identify all the “bad guys” by a purple stripe on their palm or something. But life is way way way more complicated than that.
I am finding I have to reevaluate my thinking on everything and everyone all the time. People change and people have their limits. Even all of our cells are replaced every so often. Just because someone was doing great last year doesn’t mean they can’t be pushed to a different level this year.
Dr. Bruce Wauchope does a lot of work on explaining how our minds are corrupted in framing our worlds in terms of the good/bad tree. And I agree. He does a much better job of explaining this than I can do now. I recommend checking out his talks on YouTube.
But in the meantime, my thinking is changing from “Is this person good or bad?” to “Do I like what this person is doing? Why or why not? And if not, what am I going to do about it?”
To insist on labeling people as good or bad in my experience leads to the death of all my relatationships. This is probably a huge shock to those still living in the paradigms of thinking some people are in/safe with God and some people aren’t.
It’s “easier” to ask a few questions as a litmus test. That doesn’t require connection or relationship. That doesn’t require being present or opening ourselves up. That doesn’t require taking each new person as for who they are individually versus categorizing them.
To her credit, my ex who had a devil tattoo is still to this day one of the best people I’ve known in terms of almost everything. For sure she had her faults, but I lament dragging her to church one time and harassing her to go a million other times. I lament trying to “convert” her. For all her faults, she had real love, love we see in Christ, down more than 99% of people I know. Not a pushover either. She knew how to say no.
A real shame for all of us who sat in church for mutiple days a week year after year, decade after decade and it never changed our hearts. We thought all we had to do was say the right things. Never really risking real engagement.
There is so much more to unpack on this subject, but that’s all I have time for today.