We Can Be Amazingly Good! Seriously!
And When You See Goodness in Front of You, It’s Awesome!

Maybe like so many of you, we hit the road for Thanksgiving. Or rather we hit the skyways, taking a flight across country through Dallas to Ontario, California, to spend Thanksgiving with my youngest son Kevin and his family. Actually I had dreaded the travel because our return trip was booked for the Sunday following the holiday – the busiest travel day of the whole year. But in actuality the whole thing turned out smooth as could be. David and I were prechecked for the flight so we just breezed through security both going and coming, and all planes were on time. Unfortunately, on the way home, we did sit at the gate in Dallas for 45 minutes because a baggage handler had gotten injured and the FAA requires a lot of paperwork when accidents like that happen. But we were on the last leg of our journey so we had no connections to meet. The pilot made up most of our lost time in the air, so we were just a bit late coming into Richmond.

In the meantime, we did have more than 12 hours in the plane going and coming, and lots of time to read. And I read book number two of a trilogy written by Richard Paul Evans known as his "Broken Road" series: The Broken Road, The Forgotten Road (which I read; please see lead photo), and The Road Home which I'm now reading post-flight. I’m not going to drop a spoiler here except to say that this saga concerns redemption of a lost life, an absolute conversion of the protagonist’s humanity, and the meaning of being human – at our very best. On the road, he meets some incredibly good folks whom, when you read the books, you will not soon forget.

This begs a question: Are people basically good or not? I had an older relative who was fond of saying that “people are no darn good!” or some such thing. I never agreed with him, but I did admit that goodness is sometimes masked beneath evil acts, and so there is plenty of evidence to the contrary of goodness. But still. You do see it once in a while: goodness expressed as selflessness, as self-sacrifice, as extraordinary kindness under harsh circumstances. Research has shown that when goodness – like that exhibited heroically by Mother Theresa and her nuns on the streets of Calcutta – is viewed by others, even on film – those who witness it are both awed by it and prompted to go and do likewise.

In fact, evidence of altruism, self-sacrifice, and generosity abound both in fiction (like my Road stories) and in real life. Last May, Abigail Marsh – a professor at Georgetown University – reported on evidence of altruism and generosity in a cross-cultural study of 152 countries around the world (See second photo below). The researchers used seven forms of altruism developed by Gallup, including “giving money to charity, volunteering and helping strangers, and per capita donations of blood, bone marrow and organs, as well humane treatment of animals.” They found that countries that scored high in one category of generous behavior tended to score high across multiple categories.

They found that two factors associated with altruism across countries were a sense of well-being and flourishing, as well as a sense of individualism. The latter factor was a bit surprising, but even “controlling for wealth and other variables, [they] found that in more individualist countries like the Netherlands, Britain and the United States, people were more altruistic across the seven categories than were people in more collectivist cultures – even in more wealthy ones – like Ukraine, Croatia and China.” Of course, the researchers point out the obvious: Not everyone in a strongly individualistic culture like our own is generous to a fault, but many are. And so many rise generously to the occasion. We have it in us to do a lot of good, and again, many do. And not just here, but all over the world.

More recently Nicholas Kristof, a journalist who has written for The New York Times, announced that he was leaving journalism to run for governor of Oregon (See third photo below) to try to do good on the political scene in his own home state. He said he was leaving the job he loved to try to make the lives of Oregonians a bit better. He writes:

I want to make clear that while I’ve spent my career on the front lines of human suffering and depravity, covering genocide, war, poverty and injustice, I’ve emerged firmly believing that we can make real progress by summoning the political will. We are an amazing species, and we can do better. ... Side by side with the worst of humanity, you find the best. After telling the story of a young Sudanese girl named Suad, who created a diversion to save her little sister from rape and beatings and who herself was gang-raped in the process, she says her sister’s escape made the sacrifice worth it. ... Even in a landscape of evil, the most memorable people aren’t the Himmlers and Eichmanns but the Anne Franks and Raoul Wallenbergs – and Suad Ahmeds – capable of exhilarating goodness in the face of nauseating evil. They are why I left the front lines not depressed but inspired.

For those of you who have read my books or my blogs, you know that I – as well as many others – have maintained that fiction can capture our humanity in powerful ways, telling the truth about our lives. I started off this blog with a reference to the Road trilogy, and want to end it by referring to another wonderful short story titled “Attitude Adjustment” by Tim Gautreaux (The Atlantic, December, 2018; see last photo below). The story is about a priest called Father Jim who has been brain-damaged for some years since his car was hit by a speeding train. I don’t have the space here to do real justice to the story, but all pretence, all posturing, all cultural facade has been stripped away from Fr. Jim, and what is left is a simple wisdom that enables him to cut to the heart of others’ real problems.

For example, in hearing the confession of a guy who views pornography on his computer, Fr. Jim finally notes that the girls who let themselves be filmed like that are probably desperate for money ... possibly immigrants forced to work like slaves. He says “maybe they could be your teenage niece.” The guy on the other side of the screen insists his niece would never do that, and besides, she has a job working at Burger King. At that Fr. Jim says, “For your penance, I want you to go watch your niece. ... Show up and order a meal. Sit behind those plastic ferns. ... For two hours. Watch the dignity of her work, her service ... her mistakes and her successes, how she grows tired, how she helps people. Compare that to what you see on your computer.

“Aw, can’t you just give me a rosary to say, or like 10 Hail Marys?”
“All right. but this is weird.”

At the end of the story, Fr. Jim winds up sacrificing himself in a generous act that reflects a certain naiveté, helping a man in deep trouble. In the process, Fr. Jim goes to prison for a while as a result of his innocent attempt to help another in need. If you can get hold of that story it will make you cry, laugh, and feel very good about the good folks who are out there in the world – brain-damaged or not.

As Kristoff writes, “side by side with the worst of humanity, you find the best”. As I said, some folks can be amazingly good – and it takes your breath away. And I do believe that most of us – given the chance – can rise to the occasion. Humans indeed can be awesome.

Food for thought.

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

[addthis tool="addthis_inline_share_toolbox"]