Start with my need to feel better than other people. I recognize that I am manufacturing meanings of “better” ad hoc to justify my predetermined conclusion. In fact “better” is certainly culture-bound, and probably problematic to define even within a culture.
I’m attracted to philosophies that try to go beyond “good and evil”. Nietzsche wrote about this in a way that glorifies raw power, even sadism. I can’t go there. But Lao Tzu comes close to my heart:
The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil….
When the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear….
When people see some things as good, other things become bad. Being and non-being create each other. …
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.
[These quotes are taken out-of-order from various verses of the Tao Te Ching, Mitchell translation.]
I’ve always recoiled at telling children they are “bad”. But many years ago, even before I had children of my own, I was aware of an extension of this idea: Don’t tell children that they are “good” either. As a parent or teacher, I want to empower a child to make his own decisions, to become his own person. Part of this is understanding how people will respond to him. If he hits a pet or another child, the pet/person may whimper and cry. Or he may become angry. Or he may lash back. It’s good for a child to know these things, so he can develop the wisdom to gauge his actions to produce a response that he wants. But the child doesn’t need the additional judgment that “it’s bad to hit Johnny”.
This is my hypothesis. Kids aren’t born knowing “good” and “bad”. They know pleasure and pain. They know desire and satisfaction of desire. I think they also know empathy and resonance with the feelings of fellow humans and animals. But maybe they don’t have any idea of “good” and “bad”.
Can you remember a time when you didn’t know what “good” and “bad” meant?
Here’s an idea I picked up from Charles Eisenstein: Remember the experiments of Harry Harlow
with baby monkeys. Before he became unconscionably cruel and sadistic, Harlow’s original discovery was that baby monkeys die without mother love. Even if their environments are germ-free and they have food and stimulation and all their physical needs are met, they languish and die within days pf birth without the love of a mother (or a surrogate mother).
We are all damaged in early childhood because our parents withdraw affection or threaten to withdraw affection, and this is terrifying to our infant selves. We are trained with conditional love, and we learn intricate rules about what it is to be good so we can earn our parents’ love. Later in life, long after we have left our parents’ home, we have installed within us voices that tell us when we are good and when we are bad. We have internalized the parents’ voice, and our struggle to be good is a struggle for self-acceptance.
It can be a lifelong project to learn unconditional love, unconditional self-acceptance.
Last weekend, I was thinking these thoughts, when the two-year-old in my care read my mind. I believe that mind-reading is hard for us because we are so distracted by cognitive and sensory stimulus, which we’ve learned to prioritize. It is probably much easier and more natural for two-year-olds to read minds.
She began eating dirt from the flower pot on the window sill. I was determined not to tell her “no”, but to play with her desire to do something she knew was bad. I pulled her away and dropped her onto the couch with a flair. She was jolted, but not hurt. I hugged her and said dirt is yucky and I made a disgusted noise. She got up and ran back to climb on the table next to the sill, again and again. Each time, I picked her up and dropped her on the couch and hugged her. She liked this game, and I think she went for the flower pot to keep it going, not because she wanted to eat dirt. She tried to eat dirt and I dramatized how disgusting I felt it was.
Later in the afternoon, there were other challenges. When she was angry at me, she bit me, but she seemed to be calibrating her bite so it didn’t really hurt. I know from experience that she can bite much harder. I just said “Ow!” each time, and whimpered in pain, but didn’t tell her not to bite me. A little later, we were outside and she wanted me to open my mouth. I opened it and closed it again, but she was insistent. I could see what was coming. After she repeated the command a few times, I opened my mouth long enough for her to put a handful of dirt into it. I made disgusted noises and spit it out, but didn’t tell her she was bad.
She makes me very aware of my need to show myself a good parent, and so we come full circle.