my goodness

The other day I met with my “periodic friend” – my term for a friend that you meet only once in a long while, but those meetings instantly become deeply personal conversations. This is different from the longtime friend who has been separated by circumstances of geography, family or career – many of us have the childhood or old school friend whom we rarely see, but who always provides a joyful reunion at every occasional reconnection. The periodic friend is much rarer – in a sense, the friendship depends on the periodic nature of the contact. You might not even enjoy more regular social engagement with this friend. Friendship is about recognizing your kinship with another, finding yourself in someone else. So a periodic friendship provides a unique opportunity to visit with yourself after long intervals of being apart – sort of like living out the “7-Up” documentary series, where the filmmaker chronicles the lives of the same set of people in portraits composed every seven years.

My periodic friend and I tend to fall into comically introspective conversation at every meeting. One thing that binds us is the anguished belief that there is something broken, dark and irreparable within us, some character flaw, an absence of humanity that no worldly bounty can fix. Yes, it’s dramatic and self-involved in an embarrassing, adolescent fashion. But it’s perversely fun to talk about.

My friend brought up the Platonic proposition of the ring of invisibility. This ancient concept was dramatized most popularly in The Lord of the Rings. The question goes something like, “What is the first thing you would do if you acquired a ring that made you invisible when you wore it?” Think on this for a moment but answer as quickly as you can.

He could barely express the question before I gave my honest response: I’d go visit a women’s locker room. Hey, I grew up in the ’80s, when Porky’s was a major movie franchise. My friend had a different, though equally amoral response. The point of the question, as in all interesting questions, was really in the follow-on question: “Do you think there is anyone who would honestly give a response that wasn’t bad?”

Even the most saintly figure wouldn’t answer anything like “I would go secretly leave a needed gift for a desperate stranger.” Just wouldn’t happen. Pretty much everybody would give an answer involving transgression of some moral code. So the question of the ring is an argument that people are, at their base, bad or amoral creatures. Human nature is bad, fundamentally self-interested and greedy.

We talked about this for a while, but ultimately I said “If absolutely everybody would behave the same way under certain conditions, then that can’t be the test of badness.” Even as I said it, I felt the raft of implication carried by those words, and at the same time felt astonished by the conviction I felt in saying it. I was expressing a core belief that I didn’t really know that I held. My friend said “Whoa, you could write a book unpacking what’s behind that sentence.” Well, maybe not a book, but I’d like to try to understand what I meant – sometimes I write to find out what I think.

A straightforward interpretation is the logical truism that a test is not a test if there is only one outcome. But that’s not all that I meant. It’s closer to restate the proposition as “What is universal to humanity cannot be bad.” But that is what I found astonishing, as this is pretty close to saying “All humans are inherently good.” And I have a hard time saying that about all people, not least because I’d have a hard time saying that about myself.

People are pretty shitty sometimes – I guess most people are shitty some of the time, and some people are shitty most of the time, and no one has never been shitty any time. Given this generally misanthropic view, I am surprised when I’m described as magnanimous, which has happened from time to time. A magnanimous person is supposed to believe the best of people, and my views of people are, well, mostly shitty. But now I realize that I actually do believe that everyone can be good, no matter what they’ve done. Unfortunately, this ersatz optimism only makes me continually disappointed to be let down by people, including myself. True misanthropes must be happy most of the time, as their beliefs are validated by constant evidence of human failing. Optimists about human nature can only be miserable at the pervasive failure of people to live up to their own best conception. But we can hang on to one thread of hope, missing from that catalogue of shittiness above: No one is shitty all of the time, which means that everyone can be good.