I am a fan of the Coen brothers’ films: Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and perhaps most famous of the lot, The Big Lebowski. I love the Coen humor. It ranges from subtly dry to overtly hilarious. And hey, you can’t hate a duo that ended a movie with a Townes Van Zandt movie and a terrific monologue by Sam Elliott.
Some may be familiar with a graphic that has made its rounds on the Web over the years. It posits that every character has position in the movie: lawful evil, lawful good, neutral good, etc. While it is an interesting theory, I take serious issue with the idea of neutral good. This did not occur to me the first couple of times that I saw this chart. As I was writing one day, however, that chart popped into my mind, and a thought occurred to me, clear as day: There is no such thing as neutral good.
How can this be? Is there neutral bad, and if so, mustn’t there also be a neutral good? In a word, no, there is no duality with neutral because it is neutral. Neutral implies that there is no stand and no choice made. It is obvious to me that, in the absence of choice, there is no true good. There is only convenient good, and that is not true good, for true goodness requires action. Goodness, by its very nature, cannot be reactive.
To illustrate the point, imagine this little scenario, to start. Picture yourself in a room with G-d and Satan. Satan says his piece, but you know he’s Satan, and you’ve read enough of Faust or at least seen The Devil Wears Prada, and you know that the right thing to do would be to turn your back on him. So you turn to G-d, and G-d says his piece which, as pretty much everyone knows, involves rules that you maybe don’t like much and doing some things that seem stupid, and so you walk away from that as well. Problem is, you haven’t actually chosen anything but avoiding making a choice.
Some people will interject and say you can choose to make your own rules, but here’s the problem with that, as Jordan Peterson might point out: What the hell do you know? It’s plausible that G-d knows more than you do, and it’s pretty likely that Satan does, too. That’s sort of their stock-in-trade, right?
Now imagine your own life, or perhaps it might be easier to imagine the life of someone you know. Think of how most people live their lives. They go to school, they passively learn whatever the teacher teaches them and don’t ask too many questions, they go to school, they find a partner, and they go to work at a boring job. They aren’t satisfied with their life, but they are also afraid to shake things up too much, and so they continue on as they are. Every day they go through the motions, and that by itself is its own sort of choosing. They are passively passive. They will not resolve to better themselves or change anything, whether out of laziness or fear is often hard to discern, and it is probably both.
Think of the things that we all admire. What does bravery look like? Bravery looks like having the balls (or tits, I suppose) to do what the other person will not. This doesn’t have to look like jumping a car onto a moving train. It can be as simple as deciding to ask for a raise, deciding to up stakes and move to your dream locale, to get in shape, or to ask someone you like on a date. It could also look like climbing a mountain, defending your family from intruders, or going whitewater rafting. Bravery can be big or small, but we all admire it.
Bravery is a choice. Bravery is choosing to press on despite fear and doubt. Bravery is choosing risk, and it means sacrificing the present in the hope that the future will be better for the sacrifice. Even when something is brave in a terrible way, often we have, even secretly, a grudging admiration for it. Why is this? Choice and action.
So why can’t there be neutral good, though? Simply put, neutral good is the weakest position, and it will not stand up for itself. It goes along in the hopes that it will be the last person eaten or the last person into the gulag. When neutral good’s friends decide to volunteer, neutral good goes because everyone else is. When neutral good’s friends decide that damaging property is a good way to pass a Friday night, neutral good also goes along with that because neutral good is just along for the ride and will partake, even though it knows the action is wrong. What I am saying is that neutral good is necessarily bad because it is weak and because it refuses to take responsibility for itself. Neutral good will devolve into neutral bad and even to evil, if it begins to get a taste for blood. Neutral good is the person in the room who says, “I was just following orders.”
Being good is hard because it requires a person to make good choices, and making good choices requires honesty, integrity, and sacrifice. Those things are hard to summon every single moment of every single day, but to give up choosing good is to DNF in the desert of mediocrity.
When you think of good people, what comes to mind? Philanthropists. Good parents who love and support their children. Great athletes. Explorers. Inventors. Nurses. What is it that we admire about them? What makes them good? Consistency of good choices.
We all admire brave people who are physically and psychologically strong, who make good money, who have a nice home, who have kind, smart, well-behaved children, who dress nicely, and who act with kindness towards others. We admire people who are honest, who will tell the truth even when it is uncomfortable to hear, and even if we hate them in the moment. To achieve these things requires choice, and it requires an unending series of choices made daily.
Most of us feel like we are good people, but nearly as many are mistaken in this belief, and our own moral compass misleads us. Having an understanding of what is right and wrong and having some sense of what is good does not automatically mean that you are good; it simply means that you have a rudimentary understanding of the ideal. That does not make you good. Everyone has that, save for sociopaths and perhaps a few other mentally ill types. You cannot walk around mistaking knowledge for action.
Instead of striving for neutral good, which is at best striving for mediocrity (and is therefore not striving) and at worst punching down, I suggest we all strive to be aggressively good. Aggressive good is not quite as merciless as it sounds, but it does require constant action and consistency. I have not mastered this, by the way. I’m still striving, but the point is that I am striving, and I can see clearly now when I am making good and bad decisions and be honest with myself about what I am doing.
I choose to get out of bed early and work out. I choose to eat right. I choose to make my kids eat three bites of their vegetables. I choose to spend time with my kids every day. I choose to read books. I choose not to gossip. (I fail on that one sometimes, but I make a conscious effort to avoid starting any conversations with the intent to speak ill of another, and I try to get out of those that go in that direction.) I choose to be honest but tactful with people, at least insofar as I have ever been tactful. I choose to volunteer my time for causes I believe in. I choose to take on extra projects at work while still managing my regular duties. I choose to be consistent with my good decisions.
That is all any of us can really do. The good news is, when you continually make good decisions and devote yourself to aggressive goodness, life gets better. Yes, it takes time. No, it is not easy.
For a long time, I thought it was rooted somehow in self-belief, and while I think it is certainly worthwhile to have positive conversations with yourself and to consider what you want from your life, I think it is more worthwhile to act. Action, not deliberation, will get you to where you want to be, and good acts are the only things that ultimately matter.
I have to push myself to act. I enjoy thinking, but overthinking is one of the worst things a person can do. I have spent too long in that mode. I try to spend a little bit less time in my head these days, but I will admit that I still struggle with it.
Hopefully this will give you something to ponder and perhaps put into practice going into the new workweek.
Stay thirsty, kids!