I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are good people and bad people. You’re wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
I am always fascinated by the pervasiveness of the concept of good/bad and right/ wrong. It permeates so much of our society, turning up in cultural references from the bible, throughout our great works of literature to popular storylines for Hollywood movies. It saturates our television, our magazines, our conversations about politics and about one another. I have lots of objections to it, mainly that it’s quite boring as it collapses many stories into one easy story that’s told over and over again. Good can feel like an imperative that we see ourselves as simple and static rather than complex and changing.
Good and evil also seem to be very closely related to the idea of ‘might is right’. Historically, conflicts were sorted out by ‘trial by combat…’., ensuring that power stayed with the people who had it already. The concept is so popular because it’s extremely effective at resisting any change. I think societies’ lack the imagination at any given point in time to see past the powerlessness, confusion and discomfort change brings to a better possible future. When ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ are so closely related to concepts of power and concepts of violent struggle, what is defined as good gets closely tied to what is counted as familiar and in line with normal expectations. Violence is still considered legitimate if the right people use it- feminism and #black lives matter are testaments to how true this is, as well as how thoroughly the violence of life as normal is disavowed. Normal and neutral are not the same things; normal is loaded with issues of power. The idea of Good and Evil so easily becomes a form of social control.
Good and Bad seem to me to be even more troublesome when we apply them to experiences which are central to human life; love, attachment, loss, change, trauma, growth, pain…. these are experiences that none of us can avoid in our lives and which both form us and transform us. In such situations of extreme intensity and confusion, people struggle against powerful emotional forces to keep an emotional connection. Finding ways to live with and alongside such pain, staying connected without becoming blaming or punitive, is an act of commitment. It is not possible to try to do it honestly without hurting or being hurt, without at times stepping into another’s expectation that you might harm them, or at times, finding the pain so unbearable that you hurt too much to relate well. Some forms of emotional pain are so raw and bring such an intensity of vulnerability that the matching level of clear-sightedness and integrity does not seem conceivable. For me, the reality is that when people are trying to relate one another around pain and loss it may not always be possible for any of us to know if we are doing harm or not. At such times it does not even seem to be possible to know what your own intentions or motivations are. When people are in the middle of the imploding of meaning which is trauma, when the rescuing force are entwined with the ones that caused the harm, what does good or evil mean? Certainly in some situations it seems inhuman for any of us to keep up the intensity of trustworthiness for the length of time that is needed for healing to happen.
Around traumatic experiences, it becomes impossible, at any point in time, to tell what is going, on or see clearly, nothing seems to ease the pain and it is not possible to know if the relationship is helping, hindering or harming. In such circumstances, trustworthiness in the relationship can only make sense in terms of carrying on with an expectations of making mistakes and feeling pain when those breaks in the relationship happen in the hope that the breaks can be mended. If we see things in terms of good or bad how can it be possible to carry on making a way through confusion and distortions rather than giving up at each crisis point?
When we say things are good, we mean lots of things but often implicit in it is the idea of normal, familiar, safe. Safety in the context of the difficulties of life and relationships feels to me like a stale dead-end. People seem to like to categorise roles around trauma and loss as worker, carer, patient or service user. I like learner, doer, teacher as it disrupts the easy stories and easy assumptions we can make. Wherever I have placed myself in the ways people can relate to each other around trauma I have found,
- if staying where you are feels too difficult and dangerous
- if doing something different feels unbearably controversial
- if developing in one direction or another feels overwhelmingly painful
- if others feedback can do nothing to help because the horizons of your inner world growing or shrinking cannot be measured by other people
- if most things feel difficult, or frightening, or bad;
the concepts of good or bad are spinning compasses not a guide. It is not possible to make a good decision, because life itself is so painful and uncertain. There is no way to go forward or stay the same that is less painful or without risk. A bad decision remains possible, of course, but making a bad decisions delibarately makes no sense either.
In such spaces I have found thinking about what is interesting useful. Interesting:
- seems to offer hope- why give up if things are interesting?
- seems to offer choice and power- you can learn to notice where your attention is going, what you find interesting and make some choices around that.
- help with a sense of progress and direction- questions like what is interesting right now? How come? How has it changed? reveal how you are going somewhere, even if it is not where you thought you would go.
Interesting means that it is possible that something new might happen, though perhaps this is why I also like the idea of sensible…
I have found that being interested in the problem feels less painful than anything else. Of course, interesting doesn’t mean safe and it doesn’t mean there will be a resolution. There are no guarantees and life is a daring leap towards the future, or it’s nothing at all.