I have a friend with a flair for the dramatic (I know, shocking right?!). He likes to talk about all of the things that are going wrong in his life, all of the trials and tribulations that the world is putting him through, and then he ends the tale with some variation of “I’m a terrible person.” It seems to be his way of passing the buck for his sorrows on to some karmic scapegoat, a tragic character flaw that he inherited from somewhere (nature? nurture? does it really matter?) that allows him to explain his circumstances without ever fully taking responsibility for them.
I’m going to say something that some people will find controversial or inflammatory, but at least get all the way through before you start sending me hate comments.
I don’t think there is any such thing as a “terrible person.”
People aren’t divided up into the good ones and the bad ones. People are not essentially, innately good or bad. People are just people, and people make choices. Those choices are good or bad – or depending on the situation (or the viewpoint of the person making the judgment), both. But not people.
“But surely there must be some people we can classify as good or bad,” I can almost hear you protesting. “You have to admit that Adolf Hitler was a bad person, right? And that Mother Theresa was a good person?”
Adolf Hitler was not a bad person. He was a person. He was a person who made a lot of bad choices, indescribably evil choices, reprehensible choices that changed the trajectory of human history. But he was a person.
Saying that Adolf Hitler was a “bad person” lets him off the hook. He didn’t choose to orchestrate the deaths of millions of people, he was driven to it by his perverse and evil nature. I don’t buy it. Every step that he took, every act that he committed against another human being was a direct result of a choice that he made. At any time, he could have chosen to take a different path.
Or maybe he couldn’t have. If he had tried to change course, who’s to say that one of his generals wouldn’t have assassinated him and continued on in his stead. That’s the other reason I don’t like this whole “good person/bad person” thing – Hitler is often used as our ultimate representation of evil, but what about all of the other people who supported him: the officers and other politicians who helped enact his plans, the workers who built the death camps, the soldiers and officers who pulled the triggers? By putting all of the focus on Hitler, we also take some of the responsibility away from them for their choices.
I know some people will say that “ordinary people” didn’t really have a choice. That the gun was pointed at you and you obeyed. I get that; I understand the fear, the self-preservation. I understand that it wasn’t an easy choice, but it was still a choice. Think of all the people who have stood up to authority, and sometimes died standing up for what they know to be right. And on the other hand, think of how many people might have taken the easy choice once, and gone on to orchestrate great change or do amazing things. This isn’t about passing judgment. It’s just about taking it back and understanding that we are always a result and the bearers of the choices we make.
The same is true for “good” people. I don’t think Mother Theresa was some sort of innately good person, just a woman who saw a need and chose to help. That’s not meant to denigrate her and the work she did; in fact, I think it’s even more amazing when you consider how much she gave of herself to the most needy and the most desperate people she could find knowing that at any moment she could have said, “You know what, I feel like I’ve done my share. Let someone else take over, I’m getting a timeshare in Boca Raton.” She didn’t. She chose to dedicate herself to human need her entire life. That doesn’t make her a good person. It just makes her fucking amazing.
We have millions of choices that we make throughout our lifetime, from the mundane to the monumental. Nothing in society will change if you prefer wheat toast to white, or if you decide to supersize that drive through meal or stick to your diet. But there are times when our choices have a greater impact, speak more about the contents of our character. We can choose to be selfish, or we can choose to help others. For some people, one choice may come easier than the other depending on their experience, their worldview, their mood that day, whatever. But they always have a choice. When we try to reduce people down to good and bad, we minimize the importance of choice. If a person who has often been self-interested in the past makes a selfless choice, we might ignore it. Or we try to argue against it. “That’s not who they really are” we scoff. And if a generally selfless person makes a selfish choice, we often rush to attack – “We knew it was all a facade!” What cynical times we live in.
And in these cynical times, in these times where many of us feel pushed further and further to the margins, we need to remember the power of choice. We need to hold our leaders and those around us accountable for their choices, but that means being equally accountable for our own choices. We can’t just throw up our hands and say, “Nothing I can do! You/He/She/I am just a bad person!” Or I guess you can say that, but that’s the choice you’re making. You’re deciding to feel powerless. You might not win every battle you encounter, but you can choose whether or not you’re going to fight it. Sign petitions. March to show that the world needs to change, needs to protect those among us who feel broken and powerless. Call out people who say ugly, hateful things about other groups, whether you belong to them or not. Call your elected officials, and if you hate the choices they make start working to make sure they don’t get elected again. Join social groups, in person or virtually, where you can get together with like-minded people and provide support. Volunteer at something you think the world needs. Or don’t. No one can tell you whether to engage in combat or save yourself for another fight, another day; they don’t have to live with the choice. You do.
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