Good? or bad………

Quick, without thinking, off the top of your head:

Are people born generally good?

Or bad?

Chances are you find yourself on one side of that question or the other.  It’s one I ponder often.

In support of the “Good:”

Anne Frank says, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”  Do you agree?  Genesis says that we are created in the image of God.  What do you think?

Or, supporting the “Bad”

You’ve got good ol’ John Calvin, of Total Depravity theology:  “For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive.”   Or Martin Luther:  “But what, then, is original sin? … it is his inclination to all that is evil……”

And a “prophet” of our own time, Stephen King:  “The true nature of man left to himself without restraint is not nobility but savagery.”

But here’s a related, and important, question:

Do you think you can tell the difference?  Can you tell a “good” person from a “bad” person?  (Please excuse the over-simplification here.  I don’t think we can throw away the key on anyone, no matter what, and even the very best person has dark sides. But…..)

I used to think I had pretty good instincts, pretty decent radar for such things, having had, in my life, several lengthy run-ins with folk who were, to oversimplify, “morally bad.”  Not to be too blunt, but do you think you could recognize a psychopath?

On one hand, I think most of us think we could.  I was listening to Ira Glass’ podcast of “This American Life.”  Here’s a link to the introduction, where Ira talks with “Cheryl” about her young son’s violent and anti-social behaviors (He’s tried to kill his siblings.  He’s 8.)

It will leave you chilled.  Once again, what I want to believe about people – and kids – is challenged.  We know so much about brain function and anatomy, and that we all differ in our empathic abilities, and that kids “on the spectrum” (of autism and aspergers’) have fewer connections from the region of the brain that detects, interprets, responds empathically to another’s emotional state.  But we also know about the brain’s plasticity, the ability to learn, to make and forge new connections, with the right environment.  On the other hand, obviously there are limitations to that as well.  Someone tested with a 70 IQ is not going to cure cancer, no matter how enriching and stimulating their childhood world.  But our brains tell us “Of course, we can tell the difference between someone who is “bad” – that is, evil, immoral, with psychopathic tendencies!”

But what about James Fallon, author of “The Psychopath Inside: A neuroscientist’s personal journey into the dark side of the brain.”  He says that if you have any indication that someone is a psychopath, don’t engage them, don’t try to love them, don’t try to change them.  GET AWAY FROM THEM as fast as possible.  And he considers himself one. 

Okaaaaaaaaaay.  But, a psychopath WOULD say that, wouldn’t they?  But rats:  Are people basically good?  Or basically bad, and have to be taught how to be good?  And do we just run from people who give us the willies?  But the literature says true psychopaths don’t GIVE us the willies.

I don’t have any answers, other than I’ve learned to be humble about my brain – and my gut – reaction.  After all, I had a psychopath to Thanksgiving Dinner, and no one knew it until it was definitively proven to us.  Did we miss the signs?  Or were there no signs to miss?  All I know is that once again, I have personal evidence that our brains let us down all the time.  It’s good to remember.


3 thoughts on “Good? or bad………

  1. Having experienced a good deal of trauma and having an extremely sensitive nervous system, I have mostly interpreted the world and the people in it as things I need to run away from or fight against. Lodged in my reptillian brain people are evil and will hurt you even if they don’t mean to do so. I have been trying to convince my higher brain functions for some time now to believe that God created and it was/is good, and that makes me good too. This has been far too much money spent on psychotherapy, but without it I seem to regress back to my reptilian mindset. It is hard if not impossible to love in this state. Like, as I am writing this my husband of almost 10 years texted me just to tell me he loves me. I would never even think of doing this. So, it is worth it to be cautious but definitely to challenge my old assumptions so that I can give back to my spouse even a small bit of the love he gives to me. I keep telling my therapist how can I be in the “God-business” if I think the world is out to get me? Hmmmm…some contradictions I continue to address as I decide what it really means to be human

    • O, it sounds like your brain isn’t a very compassionate place to be lots of the time! I’m so sorry – Have you ever heard of the loving-kindness meditation? It may really help “rewire” your brain and soften your heart – to others, and to yourself. If, like me, you practice Christianity, let me offer this version of it: Pick someone who brings a smile to your face, someone that just brings you joy – For me, I picked a little 3 year old here at church. Now, as you sit quietly, holding that person in your mind, say this to them:
      May you be secure in God’s love.
      May you be joyful in God’s presence.
      May you be whole in Christ’s touch.
      May you be at peace in God’s grace.

      You can write these sentences out to refer to until they come naturally to you. Once you’ve repeated that and sent that love to that one person, now broaden your loving-kindness to include maybe that person’s family, then the neighborhood & all the creatures in it, then the state, nation, continent, world – Keep sitting, repeating, broadening and broadening, expanding and expanding, and now –
      May I be secure in God’s love.
      May I be joyful in God’s presence.
      May I be whole in Christ’s touch.
      May I be at peace in God’s grace.

      If you commit to this loving-kindness exercise every day, for say 10 minutes, it will help you so much –
      And you’ve inspired me to figure out how to put this in a podcast on my blog, so folk can download it to guide them!
      Peace –

  2. Maybe this is a false dichotomy–to be “basically good” or “basically bad” leaves out some other options. Maybe we’re all “basically neutral”… a slate to be written upon? I don’t want to let anyone off the hook for doing wrong, but while I consider myself a “basically good” person now, I know it could have gone the other way in the wrong environment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s