What makes a “good” person good, and a “bad” person bad?
Everyone has a Shadow, a dark side that makes them want to murder, rape, steal, etc. Everyone has dark desires and animal instincts. Until you realize that you are not much different from serial killers and rapists; as long as you pretend that you are 100% pure and innocent; as long as you deny your Shadow; you are a slave to it. It will remain in your unconscious mind, and come out when you least expect it…and least want it. This is conventional Jungian theory, but it is also something that I have seen many, many times. I’ve known several people who tried to hide their dark sides from everyone, only to watch them explode in rage over simple things. I have done it a time or two myself, even after I knew what was happening and even after I (theoretically, at least) knew how to stop it.
So having a dark side does not make someone a bad person. Likewise, having a light side does not make someone a good person. As much as I hate televangelists, they do, sometimes, do good things to help people and the world in general. Just because they do good things doesn’t make them good people, though. Most of them are worthless scumbags who deserve a slow and painful death.
Sorry. Got carried away. If I was drinking wine instead of water, I might tell you how I really feel. Anyway, moving along…
So having feelings does not make us good, nor does it make us bad. Everyone has a dark side, and everyone has a light side.
Maybe our intentions make us good or bad. If we intend to do good, does that make us good? I don’t think so. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Besides which, no one can know our intentions but ourselves, so there is no objective way to measure them. It must be something else.
Maybe it is how we act upon those feelings that shows our true nature.
I have done many things that I am proud of. I have helped many people, and done my part to improve the world. I’ve donated my own time and money to causes I cared about. I’ve raised money for many other causes. I’ve done my best to be a good friend and support system to those who needed me. In both my personal and professional life, I’ve done many good things.
I have also done many things I am ashamed of. I have hurt many people. I’ve stolen things and gotten away with it. I’ve cheated my employers out of time and money. I’ve done more than my fair share of things that would upset the #metoo crowd. I’ve told more lies in my life than I can count. I have intentionally, and willfully, hurt both people and animals, for no other reason than it amused me.
So which of those sets of actions count for more? Does the good I have done outweigh the bad, or does the bad outweigh the good? To some people, I am a saint. To others, I am the devil incarnate. Who knows me best? Even I don’t know the answer to that…
So, it is not our natural tendencies, nor is it our intentions, and it isn’t even our actions. So what then, determines if we are good or bad?
If you believe in a god of some sort, then I suppose the answer to this is easy: God makes the judgment call. Whether it’s Osiris measuring the weight of your soul against a feather of Ma’at or Jehovah sitting on his throne makes no difference. You’ll be judged against a set of rules, and that will determine your fate.
Even if there is a god, his/her/its judgment will only occur after we are dead, and it won’t affect our lives at all. No matter what is decided, it will be too late to change it. That’s not very helpful for us, or the world around us. The same can be said of history, or the judgment of future generations. By the time they make up their minds about us, it will be too late for us to do anything about it. And how will they judge us anyway? What criteria will they use?
And so it comes back to our actions, because only they can be measured by the gods, or by future generations. Our actions will dictate the legacy we leave behind when we die.
The only way to be good is to do good.
I wrote the following passage as part of a new fantasy story I’m working on. I’m trying to write a typical “fall from grace” story, and it’s proving to be much more difficult than I imagined. This is the preface to that story, in the words of the main character:
The worth of a man is measured by the deeds he accomplishes. Therefore, to know the worth of a man, you must study his deeds. You must know the world he was born into, and you must know the world he left behind when he died.
If the world was made better by his deeds, then he was a good man. If the world was made worse by his deeds, then he was a bad man. If the world was left unchanged, then he wasn’t much of a man at all.
History will judge me by the marks I have left upon this world, be they good or bad. I have always done what I believed to be best, even when the outcome was not what I expected, nor what I desired. My intentions will not matter when I am judged, although I pray they will be taken into consideration. The world may not care, but perhaps I can reach through time, and make future generations understand. Everything I have done, I have done for you.
If there is a god, from any religion, I have little hope for salvation. Perhaps, however, I can keep moving forward, and continue to do the best I can do, and then maybe history will judge me more kindly than the gods.