People Are Great. (Except When We’re Not.)
I parked my car at the grocery store and paused for a moment by my car. The sun was just setting, and it was one of those glorious winter days in Southern California where the air was clear enough to see the snow on Mount Baldy. I pride myself on being a person who notices and appreciates beauty, and that night, I did.
Moments later I was walking toward the sliding glass doors of the market. A man exited the store and directed his cart my way. In an instant, a sense of panic flooded my mind and body. I’d been suffering from waves of generalized anxiety, but this particular wave was painfully specific. I was irrationally afraid of the man, even though he was minding his own business, innocuously ferrying his eggs and dog food to his vehicle. I was irrationally afraid of the man because it had suddenly dawned on me that in every moment, I was utterly at the mercy of other people. If they wanted to hurt me, they could. All I could do was hope they didn’t.
This happened more than fifteen years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It was one of those weird meta moments, like the first time you behold the vastness of the sky as a child and comprehend your comparative smallness. The whole basis of civilization had suddenly become apparent to me. The social contract is ultimately a fragile and oft-broken bargain.
Yes, it was my anxiety talking. But it spoke a kernel of truth: we are far more vulnerable than we care to admit. The person we pass in the parking lot may or may not do us harm. The teenager may or may not opt to wield her social capital like a shiv. The uncle may or may not seek an opportunity to exploit and abuse.
And I will not leave it unsaid: people of color are all the more vulnerable, subject to the scourge of racism.
I’ve been circling back to these hard thoughts about human nature lately. It’s impossible not to, between the resurgence of my old pal, anxiety, and the relentless pattern of selfishness, shortsightedness, and cruelty on display in the world around me. I do not like what I see.
The other day I did a thing I thought was innocuous: publicly thanked my governor for managing the pandemic well enough to keep our infection levels relatively low. Oh my word, y’all. It is really hard to assume positive intent when you’re being swarmed by conspiracy theorists on Facebook.
In seminary, I was fascinated by two fields in particular: theological anthropology, and theological ethics. I loved the earnest questions we were encouraged to ponder: What is human nature, and in light of that, how can we live faithfully and well? There are countless answers, many of which name the fundamental brokenness of humanity, and point to our need for grace and forgiveness.
It is so tempting to believe that there are two kinds of people—the Good People and the Bad People. Tempting, but unlikely. I think Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right: “The line separating good and evil passes…right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains …a small corner of evil.”
These words are certainly true of me, and I suspect they are true for most of us.
So these days I am trying to do what I do best: notice and appreciate beauty. Not just the beauty of the horizon. The beauty of that bridgehead of good that exists in all people. To be clear, I am neither ignoring nor denying the human capacity for inhumanity. I’m just making sure I’m paying attention to the other pattern that is powerfully present in humankind—the kindness and generosity and perseverance and courage.
Yet even as I focus my mind and heart on human goodness, ultimately that is not where I choose to place my hopes. And this is a lesson I learned not from some highfalutin theologian, but from Laura Ingalls Wilder:
“We are all desperately wicked and inclined to evil as the sparks fly upwards,” said Mary, using the Bible words. “But that doesn’t matter.”
“What!” cried Laura.
“I mean I don’t believe we ought to think so much about ourselves, about whether we are bad or good,” Mary explained.
“But, my goodness! How can anybody be good without thinking about it?” Laura demanded.
“I don’t know, I guess we couldn’t,” Mary admitted. “I don’t know how to say what I mean very well. But—it isn’t so much thinking, as—as just knowing. Just being sure of the goodness of God.”
I can’t be sure of the intentions of people on the street. I sure as heck can’t be sure of the intentions of people on the Internet. But I can be sure of the goodness of God—through fire and flood, pandemic and panic attack. People are great (except when we’re not). God is good.
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