A two year old is almost pure id, to use the old Freudian terminology. That is, they don't filter what they feel or think or do or say. If they want something they take it. If they know they shouldn't take it, they are sneaky about it. They will lie if caught doing something they know they shouldn't do. But otherwise they are bluntly honest. And because of that, I have concluded that my granddaughter has her finger on the moral pulse of America.
Let me explain. At age 2 she can create a lot of chaos and endanger herself if not watched closely. My wife and I and her parents are trying to teach her the rules of sensible living. Many of the rules are safety-oriented, like “don't cross the parking lot without looking both ways and holding an adult's hand;” some are practical, like “tell someone you have to go potty before you actually do so;” some are social, like “don't shriek for the fun of it in public places;” and some are moral, like “share with your playmates” and “don't hit people when you're angry.” These rules seem largely arbitrary to her. Though we give her the reasons for them, she really doesn't understand the rules, only that they exist and that breaking them has consequences, like time outs. And on two recent occasions she has made observations about morality that stood out, at least to me. When told not to be a bad girl, she told her father, “I'm not bad; I'm happy!” And just last weekend, she was resisting going home with mommy, preferring to continue playing at our house. She kept bargaining with her mother and trying to run away and when she was told to be good, she said, “I don't want to be good!” And I thought, “You know, there are many people who are a lot older than 2 who feel the same way.”
Let's look at each of her observations.
“I'm not bad; I'm happy.” A lot of folks use the same ethical rule of thumb that Hemingway did. In Death in the Afternoon, he wrote, “So far, about morals, I know only what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” That might work if you had an acutely trained conscience, but we humans are so good at rationalizing what we do that this idea is pretty much useless. Worse yet, what if the person is a psychopath or sociopath who has no empathy or fear or regrets? One sociopath was grateful for growing up in a religion that had a lot of rules because it gave her a map of acceptable behavior to make up for her lack of a moral compass. Still, she admitted to only sticking to the letter of the law and not the spirit. It did not keep her from ruthlessly destroying the lives of others, sometimes just for fun. By the way, this woman is a law professor. (Read Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M. E. Thomas. It's insightful and chilling.)
This fact is why I really don't like it when people post so-called motivational sayings on Facebook that say, in effect, “follow your dream whatever it is and don't listen to anyone else.” That's exactly what a serial killer does. I recently saw a post that said that strong-willed children should not be discouraged, because strong-willed individuals change the world. Yes, and some change it for the worst. Being strong-willed is not a virtue in and of itself. Hitler and Caligula were strong-willed. When they were given power people suffered and died. Being strong-willed is only good when the person is dedicated to doing the right thing and can't be dissuaded by considerable opposition, such as Florence Nightingale and Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and indeed our Lord. Of course, one of the factors that drove them was a strong sense that the Golden Rule should not be trumped by feelings to the contrary, and all of them were assaulted by negative feelings which they refused to act on.
Even if you are not a sociopath or psychopath, feelings are not a good guide to morality. We know we should treat others as we would like to be treated, but we are more likely to treat people as we feel we have been treated. And we often pay forward bad behavior we receive. The classic example is the guy who gets yelled at by his boss and then goes home and kicks his dog. When we are hurting, hungry, upset or tired, we are prone to lash out at people, even if they don't deserve it. The reason why absolutely no ethicist or moral teacher would endorse Hemingway's definition is that moral rules, like traffic laws, should apply regardless of your emotional state. Otherwise you are just acting as a 2 year old, doing whatever pleases you and whatever you can get away with. We have enough of that already.
Now doing the right thing will generally make you happier in most circumstances. Again, unless you have no empathy, treating someone badly should bother you and treating them very badly should make you miserable. Conversely, helping others should make you feel better if you have a functioning conscience. And once again scientists have found that helping others activates the reward centers of the brain. Altruism and gratitude and being a valued part of a community are all behaviors science says help one's mental health and one's physical health as well.
Still scientists have found that punishing people who do bad things also activates the reward center of the brain. One wonders if people who are single-minded in their focus those they see as doing wrong and obsessed with punishing them aren't in fact addicted to vengeance, the way other people are to drugs. That could be the motive for a lot of vigilante behavior. Maybe Batman gets a lot of pleasure from beating up bad guys and maybe losing his parents has simply become the way he justifies it. In the real world, maybe the leaders of ISIS are just retribution junkies, getting high off of beheading and raping the people they say are the real problem with the world.
As we've seen, you can't seriously use happiness and unhappiness as guides to ethical behavior. Sometimes doing the right thing will unfortunately make you unhappy, such as when everyone else disagrees with you. We need people who, when necessary, can stand up to the crowd and say, “No. What you are thinking of doing is wrong.” Again experiments have shown that peer pressure can make people agree to things they know to be false, do things they know to be wrong and ignore real signs of danger simply because everyone else is. Mob mentality is a real thing and it takes a lot of courage and conviction to hold fast to what you know is right. Jesus warns us that following him would lead to persecution. What's sad is how it only takes the threat of merely being unpopular to make most so-called Christians go along with the crowd.
Which leads to my granddaughter's second observation: “I don't want to be good.” When she said it, we all empathized with her. We all know what it's like to not want to be the good guy or the good girl, at least in the present situation. We want to be able to punch the annoying person's lights out, or stray from our marriage with the attractive coworker, or blame our mistake on someone else and let them get yelled at or fired. Sometimes it seems that the people who misbehave have all the fun. Sometimes it seems like the ruthless jerks get ahead in life. Sometimes it seems like, to quote Mordred's song in Camelot, “It's not the earth the meek inherit but the dirt.”
And let's face it, that is true at times. Drunk people seem to have a lot more fun at parties. (Or at least the ones who don't get belligerent or morose when drunk. Or who don't wrap their car around a tree afterwards, killing a friend or strangers or themselves or waking up paralyzed.) Certainly the guy at work we suspect is a psychopath seems to be able to climb the company ladder more effortlessly that those who are truthful and conscientious. And the Bible recognizes this. Jeremiah 12:1 says, “Righteous are you, O Lord, when I plead with you; yet let me talk with you about your judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” Similarly Job says, “Why do the wicked live and grow old, yes, become mighty in power? Their descendants are established with them in their sight, and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them....They spend their days in wealth, and in peace go down to the grave.” (Job 21:7-9, 13) The same problem is noted in the Psalms and the book of Proverbs. How long will the wicked triumph?
Of course they only triumph if you look at things in purely material terms. They may have wealth but money only buys happiness if you are poor. Once your needs are met, additional money does not translate into additional happiness. In fact, if you have a lot of money, it changes your relationship with other people, including your family. On the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain sociologist Brooke Harrington discussed what she learned about the very rich when she trained as a wealth manager. Normally these billionaires confide things to their wealth managers that they don't to their families, precisely because they were concerned about their families going after their money. They would often ask the wealth manager to hide money in case of an upcoming divorce, or to support a second secret family or to avoid an inheritance fight. Like lottery winners, the very wealthy start to think everyone, including family and friends, is only after their money. She compared it to King Lear.
What we think and say and do establishes literal pathways in our brains. By continually doing or saying or thinking certain things we reinforce them, like cutting across a grassy area will over time kill the grass and leave a dirt track. So being willing to be cruel to others becomes a habit and eventually a part of who we are. Lying or cheating or stabbing someone in the back becomes a part of us. Being secretive and distrustful becomes our default setting. We tend to focus on the effect evil has on others and we forget the effect it has on the evildoer. It changes who we are. The real story of The Godfather is how Michael, the good son, becomes every bit the monster his father was.
C.S. Lewis pointed out that if you were only going to live for 70 or 80 years it didn't matter much how you behaved. Once you died that was it. Think of it in physical terms. If you eat nothing but junk food and don't exercise, you will get fat and ill but one day you and your diseased body will cease to exist. The suffering is limited. However, if your same body continued to exist forever, the damage you did and by now habitually do to it would continue without end. Now think of the matter as it relates to your soul and spirit. If you are to live forever, then all the twists and knots you have put in your personality, all the vices, all of the appetites overindulged in, all the anger and grudges and resentments you nursed, all of the envy of others, all of the pains and wounds and slights you've held onto, will continue for eternity. You would have to live with all that baggage, the miserable and unquiet and unpleasant person you had become, forever. Eternal life would not be a boon but a curse. It would be hell.
That is why we are told to practice our virtues. We need to reinforce them in us. We need to course-correct for all the ways we have gone astray. We need to forgive others and accept God's forgiveness of ourselves for what we have done. We need to let go of all that draws us away from God and let his Spirit transform us into new creations in Christ. Only by becoming a child of the God who is love will eternity not merely be tolerable but become a continual delight.
The wicked only seem to prosper if you look at externals, just like smoking only looks cool. Internally damage is being done. Without intervention that damage will spread and ultimately poison and sicken and deform the person. Getting sick, even spiritually, will drastically reduce one's enjoyment of life. Whereas adopting healthy habits, physically and spiritually, will strengthen and make the person better and enable them to grow properly. Becoming healthier will increase one's enjoyment of life.
Still our brains tell us erroneously that we will enjoy life more if we are not good but aim at our own personal happiness. And society at large says the same thing. And we see how well the ruthless and the selfish are rewarded and we wonder if they are right. Maybe we are wasting our time and our lives being good.
Something like that must have been going through John the Baptist's mind. He had criticized King Herod Antipas for breaking God's law and marrying his brother's ex-wife. Now John was in prison, facing death, and wondering what good he had done. He had touted Jesus as the Lamb of God, the promised one. But Jesus was not nearly as “hellfire and brimstone” as John had been. Was Jesus really the one who was to come?
In reply Jesus tells John's disciples to report back all they had observed: the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the lepers being cleansed, the dead being raised to life again and the poor hearing the good news. It may not be the way John went about it but people are being made better. Isn't that what God is all about?
I often joke that the key to a healthy diet is “If it tastes good spit it out!” Seriously we have foods whose only value is that they contain calories, tons of them. But they aren't healthy. They just make us fat and open to diabetes and heart disease and stroke and dementia. Our society has created tons of activities and products that have one key feature: they are addictive. Video games reward you by letting you play more of the game. TV shows get you hooked on outrageous plot twists and developments but don't really give you any insight into real people or the real world. Our smartphones are making it possible to spread falsehoods, oversimplifications and distortions farther and faster, and we are addicted to reading stuff that confirms our biases. And the quickest way to build a megachurch is to tell people what they want to hear. Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus would never last as the pastor of a church. Eventually they would say something that would offend a major donor and be asked to leave. Because we live in a post-truth world.
Being good is not always fun. But it is better and healthier and more pleasurable though in the long run. Because we will have to live with ourselves forever, for good or for ill. We can live with Jesus forever if we simply accept him and his invitation to follow him. We can live with the source of all goodness and beauty and creativity and love forever. And that's worth putting up with the not-fun stuff today.
Now I just have to figure out how to explain that to a two year old.