Do you think people are good?
It's a question I've been asking myself lately – and asking other people too. Especially after Orlando, and with all the hatred and vitriol that's being dredged up by the current presidential campaigns (although I'm trying to remember this).
I thought I knew. I thought I was sure that yes, there are some bad people, but that humans overall were good at taking care of each other, that we all wanted to be courageous and kind.
My therapist pointed out that this surety was a manifestation of my privilege, that I felt so certain about this because I've had a lifetime of people being (by and large) good to me, and I had tried to be good to them in return.
That confidence is starting to change. That privilege was cracked by Orlando. As part of a marginalized group, I'm seeing the badness. How people can be bad for animals, bad for the planet, bad for each other. My picture of us as a species, with all this responsibility, has started to change.
My therapist also pointed out that this might not be the right way to frame the question. How could I ever find a satisfying answer? And if I did, how would it change the way I move through the world? People are all different; they are products of their genetics, their upbringing, their experiences. I do think most of them try. Scary, bad things happen, and as shockwaves move through our families and affiliate groups and societies, the people who try come out, appearing at the edges bringing with them more kindness than I thought possible.
As much as I wonder about how good we are at caring for each other, I have to balance it with the beauty of the helpers: Airlines who flew family members and friends of the Orlando victims to the memorial service for free; the theater group who built angel wings that guarded mourners from the deeply offensive Westboro Baptist Church protesters; senators who filibustered for 15 hours in support of gun control. There are always helpers.
Have you seen this poem? It's been passed around a lot. I like it, and I don't like it. Either way I think it's honest.
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I've shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I'll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that's a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child is broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
See what I mean?
I really want to hear what you think – and if any other poems come to mind. (I think poetry can be buoyant and provide both structure and indulgence for these introspective, somewhat dark and existential trains of thought.) Are people good? Is that even the right question?
PS – Writing this post gave me an anxiety attack and I had to watch like six episodes of "Parks & Recreation" afterwards while lying on the floor of my living room between my couch and my coffee table. I don't even know if I'm going to publish it. I don't want to add to the sadness we're feeling already. But maybe it would be good to talk about it. Maybe that would make us good people.
Three days later...
Was it a gift from the universe? Was it because I was looking for it, paying attention? No matter the cause, I'm feeling a lot better about this now because of something a new friend said over the weekend. His name is Joe, and he was officiating the wedding of my dear friend Steve to his (now!) wife Anna, and he solved this for me.
Joe is openly gay, and wove the recent events in Orlando into the wedding ceremony (which took place in NYC the day before the city's Pride parade) in the most respectful, appropriate, powerful way. Without knowing he was speaking to the exact question I was holding in my heart, Joe recalled two simple words his grandmother used to employ: "Hallelujah anyway."
What matters is the celebration. What matters is love. It doesn't mean the lives lost in Orlando and the hate generating across the country aren't real. Weren't real. That is still so devastating. So much work needs to be done toward gun control laws, and toward eliminating hate, danger, bigotry. But our response – the meaning, the significance is in our response.
Nothing could have stopped the Pride parades that happened this past weekend in cities and towns across the country. Not fear, not hatred, not threats. Our community and allies, hearts aching and overflowing, celebrated anyway. That's where our strength lies. That's where our goodness lies.
Thank you, Joe.