Belief is a force for good. Truly religious people strive to do the right thing with optimistic vigour. They trust that their aspirations are both achievable and meaningful, even if they fall short of them. If you require acts of heroic self-sacrifice, they’re your go-to guys. Don’t rely on us Nihilists. We’ll just collapse in feeble, self-loathing heaps at the first sign of trouble, moaning “Humanity is Weak. Even Virtue is Self-Indulgence. Thus Resistance is Useless. Therefore We are Doomed.”
There’s often a totalising, binary simplicity to religious thought that can still govern how you see the world even after you’ve lost your faith. Even if you avoid the temptation to be disdainful of non-believers, you still run the risk of being disdainful of yourself, because you are either a crusader for the light, or you are one of Satan’s foot-soldiers in the legions of the damned. This goodness or badness is part of someone’s essence and is demonstrated by their words, actions and behaviours, so if you say or do a bad thing, that’s you finished: you’ve revealed yourself to be a bad person. (literally, absolutely and irredeemably, if you are a Calvinist believer in pre-destination and conditional election).
It’s an accumulative process, in practice, though: you can go up and down in Christians’ estimation. “I don’t like you any less,” as Lulu, also brought up in the faith, once said to me, “but I do think less of you”. If you cross the threshold, you can “learn the error of your ways”; you can “redeem yourself”, although these phrases suggest you are wholly lost until you do.
There can be a dismissive thoughtlessness in the way you think about the world. Once you’ve established the goodies and the baddies, once you know who’s to blame, you don’t need to think about them any further, about their inner complexity or their reasons or their reasoning, or their struggle to be a better person. You don’t need to sympathise with their suffering. (For some reason, if it’s “their own fault” it’s not supposed to hurt.)
I was reading an extract from Lem Sissay’s autobiography, My Name is Why. His devout step-parents, having had a child of their own after adopting him, found it useful to label him as a Bad Boy. This was presumably a way of excusing their sense that he was now an inconvenience.
Children, especially, seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. This makes it difficult for them to take responsibility for errors and wrong-doings because to be justified and righteous is central to the sense of self, at this age. Admitting they are in the wrong profoundly threatens their identity. This is why children defend themselves so fiercely.
As you get older, you gain more responsibility over your own life and you become much more capable of harming others. Inevitably, at some point, you’ll be backed into a corner, and forced to admit that you’ve been acting like a bastard. This can cause a sort of existential crisis, a dismantling of your identity: you thought you were one of the good guys.
Therapy has helped me, I hope, to grow beyond this simplistic mind-set. I have various idiocies in my past that I keep hidden, assuming everyone will be horrified if they find out, that they’ll renounce me. I keep them in a secret chamber in my chest cavity, near my heart, where they fester and corrupt my whole being. Philip, my therapist, however, is unfazed by my grubby crimes and shabby sinfulness. He’s seems more interested in the tangled thinking that led to them. He appears to think me worthy of an hour of professional scrutiny, at least. This, along with his apparent un-shockability, and my desire to justify the indulgence of therapy by treating it as work, has encouraged me to experiment with honesty. Every now and then I’ll take a deep breath and reveal some awfulness. Phillip will shrug his lack of concern and pursue some other line of argument completely. It is enormously liberating. A weight lifts, slightly, that may have been on my shoulders for years.
Working with children with learning difficulties has also helped. You very quickly learn to ditch any Rain Man-based assumptions that people with limitations in one area of cognition must have a compensatory skill in another area. Many of the conditions that leave students academically challenged also make them unable to perform in other areas, such as Art or Drama or P.E. or Woodwork. They have dyspraxia and are horribly mal-co-ordinated, or can’t follow instructions, or can’t remember the steps in a process. Some have no idea what the purpose of any lesson is, or of the whole subject, or even of going to school at all. School is simply something to be endured. Some are so bewildered that they wander around in an isolated dream, leaving little impression on the people around them, and gaining little from them.
I work with a boy, at the moment, who, if you tell him off, will literally offer to fight you. I’ll say, “Come on, Dom! Just stop turning the computer off! We’ve got to get this typed up!” and he’ll say, “Yeah? Come on, then, sir. You and me.” He’s not joking, either. He senses conflict and these are the only synapses that fire. It’s such a ludicrous response that I tend to laugh through my annoyance and a look of uncertainty enters his face as if he half senses how inappropriate it is.
Most troubling are the students who are simply too intellectually limited to know how or why to be kind or to stay out of trouble. They can’t conceive of the selfhood or others. Others are so emotionally abused that they have been denied the ability, and thus the right, to be likable people. They can be desperately lonely but incapable of forming enduring relationships. Forced to rely on only themselves, they can become solipsistic and nasty. They have been horribly betrayed.
So you cannot value people on their merits. They must be treasured simply for being themselves. Humanity, human consciousness, is precious. Against the black background of mortality, every brief, dying spark is brilliant.
The question now is, can I extend this forgiving attitude to myself? Not in self-indulgent self-love, but to avoid falling into despair; to keep striving to do right.