Sorry, I need to clear my head about something, and my way of doing that is to go on a long-winded rant and share it with other people. Feel free to TLDR your way out of here; I won’t be offended.
I randomly came across this today. It’s from the Tao Te Ching:
A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.
A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done.
When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order.
Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.
I’ve always had a problem trying to reconcile Catholicism1 and true selflessness. Jesus makes a big deal about how if you’re doing a good thing and making a big show of it, in order to be praised for your goodness, you’re not really all that good, and you won’t be rewarded in Heaven for it. But that, it occurred to me, was just pushing the problem back a layer. If you’re expecting to be rewarded in Heaven for your good deeds, are you really being selfless?
I struggled for years with this concept, even beyond when I lost faith. Rather than divine reward, the question shifted to “Is it really selfless if I think the good deeds are marginally improving society for the next generation, for my hypothetical kids to live in?”
I think the quote above puts an even finer point on the same idea.
A truly good person will see that what needs to be done is done. There are few enough of them around, but kindness is a sufficient substitute. If you try to act in a kind way at all times, you’ll probably get most of the same results that a good person will.
But some people use justice as a substitute for kindness, and that is a trap. Kindness is a rising tide that lifts all boats, where justice more often involves inflicting punishment. We’re all taught, as kids, that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but Western government, its culture, the very heart of its society is the idea of equitably and justly inflicting the second wrong.
… And then there are the people who can’t even muster a basic idea of fairness, of proportionality. They have failed to be virtuous; virtue is too hard. They have failed to be kind; kindness lacks a certain catharsis. They have failed to be just, as justice would require too much sacrifice… So they fall back on ritual, on finding justification rather than seeking justice, on rationalizing their actions rather than behaving rationally. They use carefully-selected quotes from their religion as a shield to tell themselves that what they’re doing is right, and as a sword to tell everyone else that what they’re doing is wrong.
There was a point, more recently than I care to admit, at which, having abandoned Catholicism, I was seeking another denomination that meshed with my own sense of morality, as the Church didn’t, but it seemed hollow and pointless to choose which is the true God by whether or not I agreed with Him. Having read the above, I now realize what I was doing: I was seeking justification through ritual.
There’s one other quote I came across today2, ironically (given the above realization) when driving by a United Church message board:
Be kind whenever possible.
It is always possible.
I’ll probably never actually achieve virtue. That would require doing the right thing without any consideration that what goes around will come around, and I just don’t think I can do that. But kindness? That’s an ideal I think I can strive for, and maybe that’s enough.
1I was going to write “Christianity” here, but I then remembered that most Protestants think that good deeds don’t get rewarded in heaven; only faith does. I don’t get how they end up with that result from sola scriptura, but they probably wouldn’t get Catholic beliefs either.
2See, this is why I can’t actually make the transition from “nonreligious” to atheism, or even fully to atheist agnosticism.
Stuff like this keeps happening, where it seems like someone or something is trying to send me a message. Yes, I know I’m falling victim to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but knowing that that’s a normal thing doesn’t make it any less spooky.