Seeing Goodness is Hard Work

I can hardly wait till the US election is over and we can hear about something else in the news other Donald and Hillary. Maybe we’ve all been enjoying the perverse pleasure of a reality-tv show styled campaign as a kind of distraction from the horrors we might otherwise have headlining our news. There is something very troubling about how this election has served as a form of entertainment rather than a serious exercise in democracy – but I’ll save that for another post.

While we’ve been distracted you may not have noticed this: In Syria, 10 million people have been displaced by civil war. 250,000 are dead by recent estimates; and there are no signs of sustainable peace or resolution to the conflict. One can only imagine the suffering for those who remain.

It’s really too horrific to fathom. So most of us (myself included) simply turn our attention away from it. I think there may be some real wisdom to limiting how much we expose ourselves to the world’s tragedies. It’s not that I’m advocating hiding your head in the sand to ensure complete ignorance to the kinds of things that are going on around us. Probably with the way the world has shrunk we cannot easily do so. But up until this past century our minds were protected from being overwhelmed by the daily catalogue of human destruction by natural distances and barriers that technology has eliminated. Even if we could avoid knowledge of the suffering in other places, inevitably darkness will find us at some point in our own lives.

So how do we keep some kind of sanity in what seems to be an insane world of human violence and suffering?

photo-1474432978580-3d2a63f706e9Here’s another part of the Syria story you may not have heard about: In the past year, Canada has welcomed 32,727 Syrian refugees. Another 25,000 are in the process of coming but have not yet arrived. I’m not qualified to speak to the details of this policy decision or its implications but this much I know from watching a family be welcomed to Canada recently: there is still good in the world. People are thrilled to welcome strangers into their homes and neighbourhoods. They are seeking out opportunities to share their resources and provide enormous amounts of assistance and care to these fellow humans who are fleeing war and persecution. It may not solve the conflict overseas, but ordinary folk are doing their part to rescue and redeem a tragedy.

As we listen to the stories of those that have come, the suffering we’ve heard about on the news takes on new depths of reality. It’s easy to be disheartened. Many of us don’t understand the complexities of middle-eastern politics and history but it seems like all of the major players involved demonstrate humanity at its very worst. And when individuals among us tell of what they’ve lived through, it seems impossible to relegate their suffering to the pile of news stories fading in memory of things that happen “over there”.

But there’s this other story unfolding at the same time. A story of love. A story of people welcoming strangers and making sacrifices to bring relief in tangible ways. Canadians and other people of the world have acted in spite of their fears and prejudices to provide safety and refuge.

I suspect over time not only will the people who are welcomed be the recipients of good, but that they will become a gift to those who gave them sanctuary and care. A few years ago my family had the privilege of helping to welcome refugees from a different part of the world. In extending hospitality and friendship to them we entered into a life-changing experience. We’ve come to admire these people and learn significant lessons from them. Their resilience has inspired us. They brought with them values and wisdom and traditions which enrich us and the culture of our city. They’ve borne witness to what grace and forgiveness look like in really difficult situations.

I give you this picture because I think if we are to survive and remain sane as a species, we must work hard at keeping our eyes open to both the darkness and the light in our world. We cannot cocoon ourselves away from the injustices and products of selfishness that ravage every place on the planet. Yet we cannot allow ourselves to be completely overwhelmed by only seeing the dark and gloom that surrounds us. The good and evil of our world must be seen simultaneously.

There’s no shortage of access to viewing evil. Whether it be personal witness or just plugging into our digital world – there’s no difficulty finding the terrible.

It seems to me that seeing the good is somewhat more difficult, and even extraordinarily difficult at times. It would be easy to assume that this is because there’s a lot more evil to be witnessed than good.

Perhaps.

But the other explanation is that both our brains and our cultures are biased towards identifying and remembering terrible things over good ones. From a survival point of view, our human nervous system have found it adaptive to be more attuned to threats and potential danger than something like the pleasure of walk on a summer’s day. Our memories encode more readily those experiences which involved harm or had the possibility of harm, than the countless instances of kindness received from others. Good things can be potent for grabbing our attention and memory if they bring pleasure. But there is much that’s good in the world that we can just walk right past without even noticing.photo-1465805139202-a644e217f00e

So call me naive or optimistic, but I think our difficulty in accessing information and directing our attention to the good of the world is more about bias and skew, or even manipulation by the powers that be, than it is evidence for the dominance of evil in the world. I don’t think it’s as simple as making a tally and comparing whether the number of good things is equal or not to the number or terrible things. I wouldn’t know how to quantify or measure such an equation. I don’t think it matters.

What’s important is that there are both good and evil occurring at all times around us and we need to pay attention to them. But we have to work harder at noticing the good in our lives and the world. Occasionally, hope and love and compassion will knock us off our feet and make themselves entirely obvious.

Mostly though, we have to work hard at finding good and keeping it in our sights.

We have to tell whole stories, not just stop in the middle where the worst thing has happened. Human stories are tragic. But they are also full of redemption and rescue, love, and friendship. Not everything gets resolved. I’m not suggesting that if you just stay tuned long enough everything will turn out all right. I fully recognize that life is not a Disney movie.

But today I have the audacity to suggest to you that there is always some form of good and goodness to be found in the bigger schemes of the universe even if seems entirely hidden. It is one thing to believe this, it seems quite another to live by it.

So my invocation, at least to myself as I write this, is that we should ignore the common wisdom of the laundry room. Go ahead and mix your lights with your darks. We need to apprehend both good and evil. Don’t hide from the bad, but work diligently at noticing the beauty, love, and goodness in this moment. Let’s learn to see them both for what they are wherever they are.


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