Suitable, efficient, fit for purpose. ‘A good coat.’
Have you ever had a good winter coat? When you tried it on, it hugged you, made you feel loved, safe. A little too big perhaps, but that was okay, because it left you room for another layer underneath. Like meeting someone, and instantly feeling that you had known them all your life.
A good coat.
But even a good coat wears out. You may also remember that day when you reached into the cupboard when the autumn chill set in, and pulled your good coat out. And were disappointed. The cuffs not longer jaunty but frayed. The yoke discoloured with dust, the hue faded. The silk lining sagging and creased with pulled threads. The armpits whiffing of old aunts. Once a good coat, now an old coat.
We want to wear a good coat, and be a good person. But we get caught on hooks, and blackthorns, beaten by the weather. Our resolve to be a good person gets battered by tough circumstances. Our coats wear scars like we do.
Sometimes we wear our rips and tears with pride. Unashamed of our mistakes and where we have been. But mostly, we try to cover them up. With a new good coat. The old coat goes to Oxfam, or to a nursing home. We don’t like to acknowledge the other side of the cycle. The one where we decay or disintegrate.
We can buy a new coat. We can even buy ourselves a new face, even a new identity. But all of us become unfit for purpose again and again. Can we honour that, can we find a new purpose over and over?
Morally excellent or admirable, virtuous, righteous. ‘The good’.
This one is a bit more tricky. I don’t think anyone sees themselves as immoral. People don’t commit crimes because they think what they’re doing is bad. Even Hitler thought he was doing ‘the right thing’, though he chose horrific ways to go about it. In that sense, we all think we are morally excellent. Even when we suspect what we’re doing is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, we will justify it to ourselves as right or good. Because good people do bad things, and bad people do good things, all the time.
A long time ago, I had a brief fling with a married, well… separated (listen to the justification) man. Turned out he wasn’t as separated as I would have liked to believe. When he told his wife about what he’d done, she was devastated. But they started to talk, properly, honestly, for the first time since their children (now adults) had been born. And instead of leaving his wife properly, as had been the intention behind telling her, they started to grow closer again, started sorting out all the misunderstandings and hurts that had driven them apart in the first place.
I did a ‘bad’ thing. But it caused a ‘good’ thing. And long term, it was good for me though I couldn’t see it at the time. It made me stop yearning for unavailable men. I needed to sort that shizzle out, if I was ever to have a happy relationship. I grew myself up a bit. Within a year I met my husband to be. We’ve been happily married for seven years now.
So what if we dropped ‘good and ‘bad’? What if there were just actions, and consequences. Calling someone morally bad or wrong allows us to separate from others, to judge them…. And to pretend we never had a similar thought.
Have you never said ‘I could kill him for….’?
In the end, the issue with being morally good or bad comes down to perception. If a poet never performs at an open mic, does that make their poetry good or bad? If they are never judged, is it just poetry?
I’m writing a show called ‘You do not have to be good’, inspired by the beginning of one of my favourite Mary Oliver poems, ‘Wild Geese’:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
I want to explore the desire to be good in all its permutations, and how far from being a positive thing, the desire to be good limits us, distracts from being the person we really could be.
So for the next thirty days I am going to write a response to the thirty different definitions of ‘good’ that I found in the Collins Concise dictionary. I’d love to hear your responses too. What does being good mean to you?
Having admirable, superior or positive qualities. Not mediocre, negative or bad.
We all know that girl. At school, her sleek, blonde hair clasped back in a smooth ponytail. A little taller than the rest. Socks pulled up just below the knees, tie straight, white shirt neatly pressed. An A* student, articulate, always knows the answer, the books in her locker stacked in ascending order of width, a prayer book at the top. She’s Class Captain, Head Girl material all the way. She gets to pick the team at netball, sing solo in choir and is taking Grade Eight piano this summer. All the boys want to go out with her, but she’s been seeing Charlie since she was thirteen. On Valentine’s Day he arranged for a bouquet of roses to be delivered to her at registration, and wrote her out a cheque for a 100000 love hearts. Yeah.
And if you’re the girl who’s trying to emulate that, but you’re a bit scruffy, you’ve got wild, curly hair and though your brain is quick, your mind tends to wander off in class on flights of fancy about being an Olympic superstar or the next Judi Dench….if you put off your weekend homework until after you’ve watched The Professionals at 9pm on Sunday night, you’re going to be a bit disappointed with yourself. You’re not even going to notice what you do have a talent for because you’re too busy trying to prove yourself in so many other directions. The ones other people notice. The ones that ‘count.’ Yep. This is when you become an Approval Whore. Because if other people think you’re good, you must be alright. Never mind if it’s all fake, and it’s not really you… except if they actually like that fake you – the image of good you’re trying to portray - then they don’t like you. Because they haven’t seen the real you – the messy, curly, tripping over words you – so they can’t like you. You didn’t let them see it. So you still don’t feel loved. Oh.
Maybe, if you became really good, then people would love you. If you were super-actualised blonde supermodel and heart surgeon with several degrees and a charitable foundation in your name and a few hit singles on the side…then. Then people might love you. Because that’s totally you, isn’t it. Totally, absolutely who you are.
By the way, if that is who you are, fantastic. Keep doing it. The world needs people like you. And the world needs people like me too. Doing the thing they’re actually good at, not what they think makes them look good.