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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

Why We Must Have Done Bad to Be Good

There is a paradox at the heart of what it means to be a loving person. On the one hand, the aspiration would seem to necessitate that we be as ‘good’ as possible. On the other, those who feel that they are very good, who consider their record as spotless and their actions as blameless, can end up exhibiting a rigidity and sternness of heart that may veer into self-righteousness and a distinct sort of cruelty. We have to conclude that truly good people never feel beyond reproach; they know how much is crooked and unfortunate in their souls and on this basis go easy on the transgressions of others. They are properly kind because they never feel very pure themselves.

Photo by Ramez E. Nassif on Unsplash

For most people, the moment of maximal perceived purity tends to be in late adolescence, a phase that for many of us, psychologically speaking, can continue deep into middle age. We awaken from the fog of childhood to acquire a newly robust impression of moral clarity. We see for the first time how bad people really are, and grow determined to call out evil deeds that we feel we have ignored for too long. The teachers are, as we are now able to see, mostly only in it for themselves, the government is filled with time-wasters and egoists, corporations only want to protect their own interests, and closer to home, our parents are nauseatingly compromised, sentimental, selfish and variously lustful or weak-willed.

These lapses outrage our sense of right and wrong and fire a crusading spirit. It seems beyond belief that certain people who need to be exposed and expunged could be quite so venal in their actions: why would a respectable company not do more to help the forests and the seas? Why would a politician care so much about narrow party interests? Why would someone break up a family because of a passing infatuation? Why would an adult lose their temper over minor details? Why would a person get involved in the status race and worry so much about their earnings or how big their house was?

Adolescent minds can be particularly exercised by the idea that valuable things might have murky and muddled origins. In response, they will be in no mood to make excuses. If the talented painter behaved badly at home, then their work should be taken down from galleries and museums. If the benefactor turned out to harbour racist views, they should be stripped of their honours and made to disappear from history.

The adolescent is able to be so outraged because the flaws that drive unfortunate behaviour are so unknown to them from the inside. They have never yet felt the pull between duty and desire. They haven’t experienced the temptations of power. They haven’t been inducted into how desperate one may grow after years in a relationship. They haven’t been under the sort of professional pressure that means one can end up shouting intemperately even at people one loves. They haven’t witnessed the slow death of many of their dreams or the onset of unmasterable moods of indolence and self-hatred. They haven’t known from close up the agony that can ensue when friends succeed – and our own professional stagnation is thrown into relief.

It may take a while until life’s appalling complexity hits the adolescent mind; until they notice that, in spite of all their worthiness, they have in certain areas acted with some of the very malevolence they have hitherto located only in other people: the fraudulent CEO, the degenerate politician, their unpleasant father. They may have judged many people with steely implacability before they find themselves falling in love with one person even while they are pledged to another, before they act unreasonably with their own child, before they are dragged down by moods of despair and sadness they cannot get past, before they feel so weak and ignored inside that they start to boast and buy goods that they can’t afford in the hope of being noticed and admired.

They may be greying by the time someone whose good opinion they crave turns around and, with cold-hearted fury, accuses them of having been a ‘selfish, ungrateful idiot’ and they are made to recognise that they truly have been such a thing – despite being, in so many other ways, kind and humane, thoughtful and courteous, committed to protecting the environment and enlightened in their attitudes to redistributive taxes. At last, the former adolescent is ready to take on board the agonies of adulthood and to be appropriately kind in response.

We have to learn how corrupt we are, how insipid we can be, how little we understand, in order to be in any position to bestow adequate warmth on our fellow humans. We will be ready to love when we have absorbed the full extent of our capacity to be bad.

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