I subscribe to a Substack newsletter for writers by Lani Diane Rich. A few weeks ago, she wrote about being bad. On purpose. It made me laugh.
Photo by 小胖 车 on Unsplash
I’m one of those people who has a recording angel at my shoulder, busily writing down every single less-than-perfect thing I think, say, or do. It’s a full-time job.
The idea of being bad – on purpose! – caught my attention.
Well, maybe not on purpose. Maybe just living in such a way that “bad” and “good” don’t enter into … anything.
But then again, maybe on purpose. Maybe writing badly, acting badly, cleaning a dish badly, or eating a whole pizza and letting the grease run down my chin without regret or guilt on purpose.
My horror at the idea (not about the pizza, though) makes me giggle.
This writer makes a great point. Doing things badly, in general, will result in negative feedback of one kind or another. But so does doing things well. In fact, sometimes doing things well results in more negative feedback than doing them badly! Then there’s always the average middle ground: doing things well enough to get by, thereby avoiding attention for being really good or really bad.
Ugh. I’d rather be bad than fit myself into average if I can’t manage good.
How many times in my life have I thought or said, “I’m doing the best I can”?
Hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands.
Why is it my job to do the best I can?
It used to be my job because I had to justify my existence. However, I’ve outgrown that mindset now and I can’t take it very seriously. I don’t have to justify my existence anymore.
I also did it to stay safe and get loved.
Photo by Laercio Cavalcanti on Unsplash
It didn’t work.
I do it to make a deal with the Universe. I’ll do this thing as best I can if you’ll make sure I’m OK.
Hard to say if that’s effective. I’ve always been OK, but I might have been without killing myself trying to be good.
I do it to prepare for failure. I’ll try as hard as I can, and if (when) I fail, at least I’ll know I gave it my best.
Failure and success. I’ve redefined those. I haven’t always gotten the success I’ve wanted, but that doesn’t mean I’ve failed. In fact, some of my most stunning missteps and miscalculations have turned out to be life-changing gifts.
In the end, I have one good reason for being good, and that has to do with my own integrity. It’s important to me to know I’m doing the best I can in everything I do. I don’t expect praise or rewards. I’ve learned (sadly) it’s no guarantee my needs will be met. I know better than to expect reciprocity or appreciation.
It’s simply who I choose to be in the world.
But here’s a question: are “bad” and “good” mutually exclusive? Would I be more flexible, more creative, healthier, happier, and more whole if I could be bad as well as good? Is there unexplored territory in badness? Could the ability to choose to be bad be part of being good?
Could I choose to be some degree of bad along with good?
Being skilled, productive, effective, useful, kind, reliable, honest, etc., etc. all the time takes a lot of energy.
A lot of energy.
When we’re kids, we’re taught good things come to people who are good.
It would be nice if life was that easy.
I can’t help but notice while I’m doing my best from dawn to dusk some other people are not. Other people are sloppy and lazy and careless and they’re not struck down dead by a celestial lightning bolt.
A little voice in my head says that’s all the more reason I have to be continually good, to pick up the slack the fuck-it-I-don’t-care people leave.
Bullshit. I’m not the Cosmic Miss Fix-It.
Maybe it’s okay to think about taking a break from the job of being “so goddamn excellent all the time,” in Lani’s words.
Everyone needs a day off now and then. A lunch break. A vacation. Maybe I’ve worked too much overtime being excellent. Maybe I’ve lost my work-life balance.
As so often happens, there are several strands to this post. Chronologically, the first strand was this podcast from The Minimalists about race relations. I don’t usually take the time to listen to podcasts, but I follow The Minimalists and this discussion was a perfect antidote to the current disturbing headlines and media rhetoric. It made me think and provided some insight into the problem of racism. In the podcast, there’s a fascinating discussion about hate speech in which a suggestion is made that it’s not a real thing.
I know. That was my reaction, too. Hate speech is everywhere, right? On social media, on signs and bumper stickers, in the mouths of ordinary people, and in the media. It’s true that words are frequently used hatefully as we talk and write. Language, remember, is a symbolic system used to convey meaning. Speech, or writing, for that matter, is simply the use of language. Speech is only a small part of conveying information, though. Nonverbal communication is more important than the actual words we use, things like volume, intonation, emphasis and body language.
Hate speech is simply speech used to convey hate. The words alone are mostly neutral. The speaker or writer are the sources of the hate.
It’s trickier even than that. Some common, perfectly neutral words like “uterus” are now classified by some as hate speech. This is clearly ridiculous. There’s nothing hateful about the word. When I use it, I’m certainly not feeling or intending to communicate hate. The hatred, if it exists, is in the listener.
Hateful people speak and write hatefully, and are predisposed to hear hate when none is intended. People who are not haters use the same words to convey simple meaning, and are surprised and incredulous when accused of engaging in “hate speech.” Fortunately, being accused of hate speech doesn’t make it so.
Let me be clear I’m not poking at things like mascot names that demean American Indians, or use of words like “nigger.” I don’t support either, ever, for any reason. When a group of people protests that such terms are hurtful to their culture, history, and sense of worth, we need to be respectful. Some words are pejorative and ugly, and they’re meant to be. Language is not static; hundreds of slang words and idiotic labels are created and used every year, some with a specific intent to convey hatred and contempt. What I’m focusing on is standard language, words we use in everyday settings and circumstances with dictionary definitions.
I’ve thought a lot about this. Is there such a thing as hate speech, or is it simply that hateful people use language to say and write hateful things? In that case, the problem is people hating, not the words themselves.
That was the first thing.
The second thing was our recent adoption of a pair of kittens. We both love cats, and our old cat died over the winter, so we had an empty place in our hearts, which these two have filled magnificently.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had babies to take care of, and it brings back a flood of memories and feelings, especially my desire to be a “good” mom. I notice how important it is to me that they be happy, healthy, safe, well-bonded and learn to differentiate between bare skin and clothing as they climb, play and explore. I want to do it right. I want to do it well. I spend time evaluating my patience, my efforts to keep them safe, my performance as litter box cleaner and fresh water procurer, my roles as playmate, limit-setter and comforter.
Am I a good kitten caregiver?
The third strand in this post comes from a book, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, who is one of my favorite writers.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a good or bad Christian,” I told him. “Only good or bad people.”
As I read that, I thought about the podcast I’d listened to, and my conclusion that perhaps there’s not such a thing as hate speech, just words used by haters. My practice of minimalism has taught me to simplify wherever possible, and it occurs to me we’re all many things to many people in life, and most of us are trying to be “good” friends, partners, family members, employees, and probably an infinite number of other roles. We fragment our identities into all these shards and pieces. What if we let go of all that and focused on being “good” humans? Wouldn’t being a “good” human across the board take care of everything else?
Then, of course, we have to decide what we mean by good and bad, but I’ve already opened that can of worms a couple of times, so I’m not going to go there again. Let’s forget about the term “good,” which means everything and nothing.
If I practice love instead of hate (including with myself), if I strive to be tolerant, respectful, authentic, responsible and keep my integrity intact, then I bring those qualities to everything I do every day, whether I’m working, hanging at home, playing with kittens, spending time with friends, interacting with family, or buying groceries. I don’t have to worry about being a “good” anything. I simply strive to be the best human I can be, whatever the circumstances, whatever the context.
Let it be said that not everyone has a desire to be “good.” I am all too well aware assuming everyone has my agenda is a fatal mistake. There are those who would love to see the world on fire.
Still, I believe most of us are trying to be a “good” … whatever, according to our definition of good. Sadly, especially when we think about religious and political pieces of identity, this is often where the hate begins.
It’s complicated. People are complicated. We’re also devious. Debating about what is and is not hate speech is a diversionary tactic leading nowhere. The issue is not words. Words don’t hate. The issue is our own hatred toward ourselves and others, and for that we are responsible. The issue is not our willingness or ability to fulfill expectations of what it means to be a “good” fill-in-the-blank. That’s nothing but pseudo self. Life is not a performance. The issue is what kind of humans do we choose to be? What kind of humans are we?
Certain ways of thinking support and feed my perfectionism, and other ways of thinking starve it. Being concerned with being a “good” this, that and the other is a lot of anxious work and encourages perfectionism, pseudo self, people pleasing, and a whole host of other unhelpful behavior patterns.
Approaching each day and activity with a desire to be my best and respect the needs and feelings of myself and others is not only simpler; it leaves me with energy and space to have fun, to love others wholeheartedly (even when they do climb up my bare leg with tiny pin-sharp claws), and to enjoy life.
I talk. I write. I listen to feedback about how my words affect others. I know I’m not a hater, and I don’t allow others to project their hatred onto me. I accept I have no power over readers or listeners who are determined to misunderstand and twist my words into hatred. I practice respect for myself and for others. Words used by haters divide and leave deep wounds. Words used by non-haters have the power to connect and heal.
If we are not humans who hate, our language will not be hateful. If I practice love, responsibility, patience, and tolerance, I’m a good-enough kitten caretaker. If I strive to be a “good” human (according to my definition), then I can forget about the individual performance of all those fragmented pieces of my identity.
Last week, Thursday approached, arrived and passed, and I had nothing. Nothing to post; no insights, inspiration or coherent questions. No journeys, organized notes, serenity or discipline.
What I did have was the feeling I was inadequate, ridiculously undisciplined and failing to manage my stress and anxiety. I had a collection of entirely made-up apocalyptic stories about the future and a migraine headache. I had worries about friends and their families, people who were sick and couldn’t get seen or tested for coronavirus or anything else. I had rumors about numbers of infected community people that couldn’t be either confirmed or denied. I had pacing, restlessness, climbing the walls, apathy, and a feeling of futility and disconnection I called depression. I had hours invested in online Mahjongg solitaire.
I also had squirrels in the ceiling of my attic aerie, scampering, wrestling, playing, gnawing, and making soft sweeping noises that sounded very much like making a nest. By day, the noise was distracting, even if I did smile in sympathy because it sounded like they were having so much fun. The gnawing, however, was maddening, as we could neither locate the exact location of the animal(s) or the access point(s). It sounded like they were going to come through the wall into the room any minute.
By night, their noisy activity was beyond distracting. As I lay staring up at the ceiling over my bed, I thought bitterly they were having much more fun this spring than I am. They also had a lot more energy than me. Nice for some people to have a night of romance, play and planning for a family in a cozy, sheltered place.
Squirrels are rotten roommates.
My partner and I missed walking for a few days due to weather (cold, windy, and more snow — Aargh!), and just feeling out of sorts in general.
When we finally did get out again during a breezy but reasonably mild sunny afternoon, as we walked up the hill my partner asked me a question:
“Have you ever felt yourself to be a good girl?”
Wow. What a terrific question. Nobody had ever asked me that before. I had never asked myself that question before.
It didn’t take any thought.
One of the first things I knew about myself is that I was not a good girl. I am not a good girl. Not in any sense of the word. I’m not a good female. I wasn’t a good daughter, sister, mother or wife (especially wife!).
After that immediate knee-jerk response, though, I really thought about the question, at which point I wondered what, exactly the definition of good is. A little bell began ringing in the back of my head. Hadn’t I written about good and bad in some other context lately?
As we walked that day, my partner and I played with the concept of being good or bad, how we form such pieces of identity, and how we are shaped and influenced by our self-definition. My partner said that being a “good girl” means being an obedientgirl.
Well. If that’s true, no wonder I’ve never been a good girl! My best friend couldn’t truthfully call me obedient. I noticed I immediately stopped feeling hopeless, worthless, tearful and miserable, thoroughly distracted by the conversation. In fact, I suddenly felt amused.
Somewhere inside me is a three-year-old who equates being good with feeling loved. I know, intellectually, that’s nonsense, but evidently I can’t quite get it emotionally. I keep thinking I’ve dealt with this thing as I’ve worked on my pernicious habit of people pleasing and deconstructed so many old beliefs and patterns, but a certain kind of stress and experience dumps me right back into my three-year-old self before I know what’s happening.
At that point, I temporarily forget every step of the long journey I’ve made in reclaiming myself and my power.
I went back and found my post about good and bad creative work. It made me smile, because as I wrote it, it never occurred to me to take the concepts of good and bad a step further and think about them as they apply to who we believe we are as people.
Here’s a brief review of the definitions of good and bad from Oxford Online Dictionary:
Good: “To be desired or approved of,” “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad: “Of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”
So what have we got? Two entirely subjective black-and-white descriptors, that’s what we’ve got. Furthermore, neither have a thing to do with unconditional love, which is the only kind worth giving or receiving, as far as I’m concerned. “Love” predicated on compliance and obedience isn’t love at all, it’s a toxic mimic and a control tactic.
If being good is being obedient, I have no interest in it. Neither do I have interest in being bad. Both are non-concepts. Good and bad have no power unless I have no power.
Goodness and badness are as impotent and limiting as compliance and obedience. There is no there there, no wildness, no creativity, no complexity, no gravid chaos, no resilience or flexibility, no authenticity, and no personal power.
Am I a good girl?
God, no! My whole life I’ve been so much more than that!