Good and Bad

I think these words are not useful and generally should not be relied upon. I am not saying that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, I am saying that they are, as a collective shorthand, inhibiting human development. I offer my parenting experience to support this proposition, coin the phrase "bad blindness" and then project - probably speciously - my conclusion to the whole world.

I feel my obligation as a parent is to help my children understand the world and also to give them a real shot at happiness. This requires me to attempt to understand the world and give myself a real shot at happiness. Because the awful truth of parenting is this: my children absorb who I truly am. No matter what I tell them, or how many violin practices I take them to. They are absorbing my joy and pain, my food and drink, the way I look at things, how I treat the earth. My reactions cue their reactions. Not totally, of course, and not forever, but for now this is true.

So my parental obligation is to be my best self and help them be their best selves. The words good and bad are a truly terrible impediment to this goal.

First, there is simple thing that it's a lazy shorthand. Playing ball is good, playing ball in the house breaking something is bad, the only distinction is the location. So teach them location. Interrupting an adult conversation is bad when it is annoying and good when Johnny has fallen down the well. Distinction: priority of message. So teach them priority of message. Equip them. Chocolate cake, ice cream, asparagus . . . give them ideas about fresh vegetables and health and fat. You get it.

Second, and I realize this is not true for everyone, the adjectives good and bad create in me a terrible heightened false consciousness. It comes from my Christian upbringing. I have a vivid imagination and going to church gave me a lot of downtime to use it. (I remember some absolutely riveting and imaginative descriptions of hell when I attended the Christian Missionary & Alliance Church in Corning in the 70's - these guys had a gift and should immediately all become writers on Dr. Who) Telling little children that the consequences of sin is death is to create in them a terror of being in sin. Fear (of any description) is not useful in understanding the world and it certainly is an enormous deterrent to being happy. It inhibits my clear thinking. Here is an example. Christian doctrine requires Jesus First, Yourself last, Others in between. (A chilling denial of what some humans need). This blueprint on my consciousness means that whenever I do anything fun for myself, I think of that as sinful selfishness and I feel afraid. I use the level of consciousness here with too much laxity. I never actually think about it, it is in my muscles, I only figured out it was even happening over the course of the last few years. It took a long time. It is embedded irrevocably in my nervous system so it's hard to see. But I was able eventually to identify symptoms: pounding heart, restricted blood flow, hollow feeling at the base of the ribs, the vastly unpleasant experience of being terrified. It all comes back, again, not in a conscious way, it is just there. I can't regulate the cortisol that floods out.

So this is not something I want to pass on to my children. (Incidentally, my son is in a Christian school now and it is an incredibly serene, joyful and virtuous community - not all Christians engage in such destructive neural programming). So my task again, truly being myself, requires that I minimize the destructive capacity of the words good and bad.

In my quest for my highest self, I have had to unpack all the bad things. When I do "bad" things, I suffer for them, I punish myself. I have internalized the message so completely that I unconsciously make it bad for myself, usually by feeling intense shame after I have fun.

And I also have "bad blindness".
The words bad and good can impede people really thinking about what they are doing. When I do something that is "bad" and risk the terror/shame cycle, I can't bear to think about it, so I just put it out of my mind. Once I figured this out about myself, I see people doing this ALL THE TIME. I was recently speaking to some long-time Cambridge residents who asked how I liked living in Cambridge and I said that I found the natives incredibly difficult and felt like a permanent outsider in the local culture. THREE PEOPLE politely told me that I was simply mistaken. That I was wrong and I was in fact having a wonderful time. In that case, I have criticized the culture rather than the individual, but the blindness ensued.

The cloud of bad blindness is no way to go through life. I fogged a lot of the 1990s because as a single woman who loves Champagne I had more than my share of traditional vices. Sex was bad, and it was bad to have sex outside of marriage. I did it anyway, but in a way that was sometimes just as furtive as a repressed gay senator in a men's bathroom. With exquisite shame to follow. I don't know if shame is ever an appropriate thing for a human to feel.

Humans have a powerful post-subsistence need to be classified as "good" in order to make the other "bad". This leads to a considerable amount of violence when in fact many of us know better. Americans have it to a pathological degree, which is why they have bad blindness.

British children are forever playing "goodies" and "baddies" on their ubiquitous parks. There is never any discernible difference in the behavior.


  1. Hi Rachel,
    I enjoy your writing. Fascinating things to ponder here. I will digest and then read again.

    Thanks for writing it down,

  2. Someone sent me a great quote she thought of after reading this piece:

    "True happiness is to understand our duties toward God and man: to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence on the future: not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears, but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is abundantly sufficient."


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