I watched a movie last night, East of Eden, that largely dealt with the idea of people being either good or bad. I’m sure it was partly the time period but it struck me as amusing, childish, and sad that the characters seemed to have such black and white ideas of goodness and badness as it relates to individuals. There was one conversation in particular that really struck me. The female lead, Abra, is talking to her fiance’s brother, Cal, who is the male lead. She’s bemoaning the fact that her fiance sees her as decidedly good – she believes he has idolized and almost deified his believed to be dead mother and sees Abra as another representation of the angelic goodness he believes to represent his mother’s character.
As Abra is telling this to Cal (who has always been viewed as the ‘bad’ brother) she says that’s not who she is, that she’s actually bad. She thinks bad things and does bad things and maybe she’s not all bad but she’s certainly also not all good. She implies she’s more bad than good, certainly more bad than her fiance, and that some of this badness is of a sexual nature that her fiance won’t let her express until marriage. She’s very curious about what Cal does with the ‘type’ of girls he’s seen around with and makes her attraction for him very known – resulting in her cheating on her fiance by kissing Cal.
Cal fully identifies with the ‘bad’ he believes to define him. When he finds his mother is not dead but the owner of a bawdy house that seems to be his justification for being bad, although he fights against this at times by trying to do good in ways his religiously zealous father views as misguided, if not downright sinful.
As I was watching I couldn’t help but see the way of thinking I held as a child. Probably partly due to my religious upbringing I saw actions and people as either good or bad. If I witnessed someone do something bad – and I mean really bad, like engage in some form of sexual promiscuity, steal, swear regularly, etc. then that person was bad. I could accept that there was some leeway for the type of ‘sins’ I committed – disobeying my parents occasionally, gossiping, being rude to my brothers. But for any of the big sins mentioned, and then the ones even bigger – murder, rape, etc. there was no leeway. If a person did any of those things that was that – they were bad.
For example, I remember sitting in church one day beside an older girl in our congregation – one I admired and loved. Her boyfriend from college was with her and horror upon horrors I looked over and saw he had his hand rested on her upper thigh. Automatically I disliked him; he was clearly bad and I was shocked and disappointed in this girl – though I at least gave her the benefit of the doubt that she had been manipulated in some way and wasn’t actually okay with this action – she couldn’t be, from what I knew she was good.
I was probably around 9 or 11 when I stopped thinking this way. I don’t remember what it was specifically, but I know it was some specific event that initiated a paradigm shift. I came to understand that when it comes to goodness and badness with people and actions there is very little black and white – most of it is grey. A man who steals and murders may be performing ‘bad’ acts but there may be reasons behind those acts that are good (or that he at least believes to be good) – maybe he steals to provide food for his family, maybe he murders to prevent someone else’s murder. It doesn’t justify the act but it makes some small difference. To take it further, I realized that a person who perhaps is horribly evil in some ways – a rapist, a terrorist, perhaps even someone like Hitler – is also capable of good and love. That rapist may treat his mother with more kindness and love than I ever would. That terrorist may love and nurture his daughter and make incredible sacrifices for her.
Unfortunately, as I’ve grown and learned and developed and witnessed this new understanding in action I’ve also encountered far too many adults who seem incapable of seeing things this way. Like the young adults in the movie they are unable to see people for the complexities that are within them. They make snap judgments based on a person’s actions without taking the time or the consideration to understand the reasoning behind those actions. The scary thing about that is when we act that way we erase the possibility of seeing a person for the potential they hold within them. If no one sees a particular ‘bad’ person that way (or if not enough people see their potential for good) it is very unlikely that they will ever strive to let go of the ‘bad’ and try to live a better life, which will only perpetuate negative and society harming acts.
Take it from another angle, and people who hold this view are also very likely incapable of adjusting their definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and so judge everyone by their own views of morality. I don’t have any definitive answers on moral law and what is or isn’t truly ‘sinful’ but I do believe that a lot of what many people hold to be sinful may be just their opinion – and holding that opinion without taking the time to truly contemplate the truthfulness of it may be damaging both to themselves and to the people around them.
My nine year old self thought that young man’s action of placing his hand on his girlfriend’s thigh was sinful, depraved, bad. My 27 year old self does not think that, and knows there could be many reasons behind that action – perhaps it was a sexual act, perhaps it was a motion of affection, perhaps a motion of comfort or affirmation, perhaps a combination. Perhaps it was none of my business and something I had no need or right to be concerned about.
Whatever the answer, I am thankful that I have let go of such childish thinking, I hope you have too, and I hope we both strive to encourage those who still think that way, regardless of their age, to reconsider.