A person doesn’t always get what she deserves – remember it. If there’s anything in life you want, go and get it. Don’t wait for anybody to give it to you.
— Miss Elsie Thornton, Peyton Place (at 18:54, if you want to see it for yourself)
This past year, a very special woman named Betty, a long-time patient of mine, a good person, a wonderful person, who fought and clawed her way in therapy to ‘recovered memories,’ who went from a totally unfulfilling, dead-end career, to becoming a powerful and creative psychotherapist and a force in our community . . . well, Betty died, unexpectedly, ‘unfairly.’
We talked often, very often, in her therapy, about fairness. Why had these terrible things happened to her? We talked about being ‘good’ a lot, too, and she came to realize that from childhood on, she had believed that if she was just ‘good enough,’ good things would come to her.
And finally, in working with patients of her own, she got to pass on her hard-earned wisdom – that goodness, in itself, is no guarantee of happiness, or safety, or satisfaction, and that, as the teacher in Peyton Place quoted above states, you have to take action in the world to get the things you want and need.
Therefore, this blog posting is dedicated to the memory of Betty The Good, who did finally, take action and, for a while, got some of the things from life that she longed for. And of course, for me the ultimate irony is that it was Betty The Good, of all people, who ended up dying far before her time.
We often said that the last part of her life, when she finally got to be a therapist and ‘strut her stuff’ in the world, was going to be the greatest time of her life.
Better late than never, we said.
Well, it didn’t end up that way for Betty, but now, whenever I talk with someone about ‘goodness’ and their expectations of a reward, I think of Betty and hope she knows how much she taught me, and that her life and learning is still being put to good use by someone who revered her.
And so, my dear, your race well run, your work well done, your victory won – now cometh rest.
This one’s for you, Betty . . .
Working with people all these years, certain eternal themes begin to stand out, and one of them is this:
If I’m a good boy (or girl), I will be rewarded by Fate.
Don’t laugh: most people – most likely even you – really believe this, and, to some degree, base their lives upon the promise and expectation of justice, fairness and richly-deserved rewards, at the end of the day. Am I saying people expect miracles – a fortune in jewels, fame and legendary status in the eyes of the world, or to live to a hundred, just because they didn’t rob banks or beat their children? No – it’s a lot more subtle than that, and the roots of it run deeper than that.
Picture yourself as a small child with your mother. Mother controls everything – everything you need: food, milk, comfort and affection, approval, treats, toys, everything. But the ‘system’ isn’t simple: you can’t just cry, or smile, or do anything that’s under your control, to get what you want. It depends on a lot of things – Mom’s mood, how much she has to do at that moment, how Mom feels about you, your damn older sister, who’s always yapping for more, the family’s finances, and so much more. If you cry, or smile, you might get what you want, but than again, you might not.
Well, being a smart little son of a gun, you soon figure out that, even though you can’t always get what you want right away, you might get it later on, if . . .
If what? Well, ‘if’ a bunch of things, but mostly, if you’re good.
Good? What’s good? The stuff that makes Mom smile, and act like she likes you. Even though you want things NOW, you get in trouble when you demand them, plus you make everyone mad. Nope, you do better when you’re good, and then wait. It doesn’t always work, but it works better than anything else you’ve been able to come up with.
And the same thing applies, in mirror image, for Mom. Any mother of young children knows what a blessing it is when they are finally old enough to be told, and understand, “Maybe later.”
Maybe later: that blessed incantation that not only buys you time and heads off yet another tantrum, but also, by implying, “If you’re good,” buys you quality time.
So there you have it: by the time the kid is old enough to understand words, not only has the child learned that ‘being good’ works to control Mommy, but Mommy, too, has learned that making things contingent on, “If you’re good,” is the royal road to controlling Junior.
And that’s when things start to shift, subtly, towards our topic for today. Eventually, “I’ll get good things, if I’m good,” shifts to, “Because I’m good, I’ll get good things,” and then to, “I am good – and therefore I deserve good things.” Well, it’s all Jake, except for one thing: no one informed God, or Allah, or Fate, or Kismet, about the little deal you’ve cooked up in your head, because as we all know from famous book titles if not from personal experience, Bad Things Happen To Good People.
Miss Elsie Thornton, for example, from our opening quote, was by all accounts an extremely good person and teacher, and therefore deserved to be appointed principal of the high school. And yet she was passed over, because one person on the School Board had it in for her.
If good things happened to good people, where would the quote, “The good die young,” fit in?
I mean, we all know that we have a “rendezvous with death,” and poor old death stands in for “the unforeseen” to most of us, but, in truth, we all have a rendezvous with destiny all day, every day. Who’s to say a drunk driver isn’t going to swerve into you on the freeway, sending your car tumbling end-over-end? Who’s to say you aren’t going to be diagnosed tomorrow with Parkinson’s, as Robin Williams apparently was? Or that your wife isn’t going to leave you for the neighbor? Or that your son isn’t going to announce he’s a radical Muslim? Or that you’ll develop a back problem that ultimately requires twelve operations, leaving you broke and in pain for the rest of your life?
These things do happen – they happen a lot, and to perfectly nice people, who wear their seat belts, don’t beat their children, remember their anniversary every year, treat their employees right, floss every day, and give to charity.
Just because – that’s why. We want to believe that being good will protect us from bad things happening, and to the extent that taking care of your health, or being nice to your wife, or being frugal with your money and showing up for work every day can make a difference, it does, but so many, many things are beyond what we can control – and beyond what we ‘deserve,’ too.
Your doctor says you have an aneurysm that might explode at any time.
That’s not fair!
You develop esophageal cancer, and you’ve never smoked a day in your life.
That’s not right!
Your marriage falls apart because your husband realizes he’s gay.
But I didn’t do anything wrong!
See, we’re still stuck with that operating system we developed as a kid: if I’m just good, good things will come to me, and I’ll get what I deserve.
Oh, and then, when bad things do happen to us, we twist ourselves into mental knots trying to reverse-engineer it:
Wow, I must have done something wrong for this to happen to me!
My god, could this be ‘punishment’ for the one-nighter I had with that waitress at the toy convention in Cleveland?
Holy cow, I know I once wished my wife dead, but why did ‘You’ have to give her cancer? I was only kidding!
Okay, you say, “I get it”: our outcomes are not necessarily tied to our personal worth, or our goodness, or even to attending church regularly, paying our taxes on time, or apologizing to those we have hurt.
Where does that leave us?
Well, funny you should ask, because that’s just what I was going to talk about next. It leaves us kind of like an astronaut whose umbilical cord has snapped: lost in space. Oh sure, you can believe in The Almighty looking over us, or the power of prayer, or the Oneness of all things – and I’m not knocking any of those things: whether they’re ‘true’ or not, they give people something to hang on to, some sense of control in a frightening universe, and that’s not a bad thing.
But what if we just faced the barest truth: that things are pretty random, that ‘bad’ and ‘good’ things are handed out willy-nilly, that a saint could get Parkinson’s, while an evil monster lives healthily to a hundred-and-ten?
What are we left with then? Does it make you feel like the denizen of an ant farm, going about your business every day, with no ‘real’ meaning, except to go on, and on, and on, until Fate strikes you down like you would swat a fly or step on a bug?
As Peggy Lee once said, is that all there is? Should we ditch the whole concept of trying to be ‘good’ and just Come And Get It – all we can, as fast as we can, however we can?
After all, if Fate doesn’t care, why should we?
In the film noir, The Turning Point, there is a character played by William Holden, a cynical newspaperman, with a jaded, nihilistic point of view about the story he’s covering – yet one more Blue Ribbon Crime Commission, established to ‘get to the bottom of’ a crime syndicate that’s running the town. He is the voice of the uncaring, taking potshots at the “do-gooders” who are, as far as he’s concerned, just going through the motions of combating the criminal forces in the big city, making it look good for the public.
But gradually, he comes to care, and he comes to admire those who are at least doing their best to do ‘good,’ even if the forces of evil are overwhelmingly powerful.
Eventually, he gets involved, ultimately sacrificing his life for ‘the cause,’ going way out on a limb to aid those who are trying to improve the lives of others.
Finally, just before he is killed, he, the formerly wise-ass, seen-it-all newsman, says this:
Sometimes, someone has to pay an exorbitant price, in order to uphold the majesty of the law.
He knew that he might die, in doing what he did, he knew the forces of evil would continue, in some form, even after his exorbitant sacrifice, he even knew that what he was doing was a drop in the bucket in the ultimate war on crime in his city.
But he decided to do the right thing, BECAUSE it’s the right thing, because we’re not animals, because even though our little, ant-like gestures for good may be small and puny, even ridiculous, in the eyes of Fate, it’s all we have. And maybe because, if we do the right thing, if we contribute our share to the common effort, we earn the right to stick around for another day and share in the beauty that is all around us. Because even though “they’re” handing out Parkinson’s Disease to a lot of nice people, and cancer to a lot of wonderful ones, they’re also handing out gorgeous sunsets, and amazing food, and good friends, and staggering feats of imagination and artistry, and soft rain, and train whistles in the distance, and tears, and laughter.
So, even though being ‘good’ may not bring you a million dollars, or a lifetime of happiness, or that big promotion, or a pain-free death in your sleep at a hundred-and-ten, on silk sheets – even though, maybe, it’s even puny and ludicrous, it’s all we have.
And maybe, just maybe, if we don’t expect too much of it, and back it up with action, being good can have a majesty that is sufficient unto itself.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.