What Makes A Good Man?

Let's begin at the end. 

Countless eulogies and epitaphs describe a deceased person in a variation of the sentiment of "he was a good man." Sitting graveside we all remember fondly those we shared life with, reveling in the memories of a grieving mind: the cherished moments of a kind word, selfless act, or noble deed. Such memories are not alone in remembrance, however. Our loved one may have had a hair-trigger temper, poor financial management, demanding personality, an addiction, or abusive. Certainly not everyone thought the departed was universally "good." Never-the-less, condolence after condolence rolls in with assertions of the goodness of the man or woman being remembered. 

Being a science-fiction enthusiast (i.e. nerd), Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead was a book which captivated me in middle school not only for the narrative arc of the story of colliding species, but in the idea of a person who would enter into the lives of those surrounding a person who died to tell not the eulogized, rose-tinted visions of remembrance but a truthful retelling of the life and deeds surrounding the dead. I found it a fascinating concept on our objectivity and understanding of the life we experience. Because the reality is we only know in part, and even what we do know is fallible. We think we know something, yet we do not really grasp it all. 

Let me put it a different way: have you ever been surprised by the actions of someone close to you? Did they do something that you did not see coming, and did not seem consistent with what you knew of them (positively or negatively)? We find ourselves joyous or disappointed in those moments. Perhaps we see glimpses of redemption, or struggle with apparent foolishness of decision. First impressions never remain unchanged.

Others actions often lead us to change our valuation of them. They move from good to bad, or vice versa. Other times we simply rack up the action as an exception to their inherent goodness or badness. A zebra cannot change it's stripes, after all. 

Now we arrive at the philosophical question on the inherent nature of humankind - are we good or bad? 

A second, equally informing, question is whether people can change?

I am convinced we all have an answer to these questions even if we don't know how to articulate them. Most of us base it either on abstract concepts or personal experience. Whether or not we are aware of it, we do live our lives according to our assumptions and beliefs about these questions. I also know that there are many different takes on answering these questions, rooting themselves in underlying convictions of determinism and free will - theistic and athiestic worldviews alike. As I lay out my take, I know that some may agree and other disagree. That is OK. 

So: What makes a good man? (go ahead - watch the music video - it'll get you energized for the rest of the post)

I do not think we can deem a man good or bad. They are merely human.

I do not believe that humans are inherently good or bad. I believe that each human being is capable of good and bad. 

I believe that it is a mark of our own self-justification rationalizations to attempt to categorize people into good or bad. The reality is we tend to deem those who act, prefer, or enjoy similar things to us as good while condemning the actions of others who are different. 

For instance, I am a big American Football fan and while I can watch a soccer game, I do not appreciate it at the same level of intensity as other people. I'm OK with that preference as well. Unlike those who fill the internet with insults, accusations, and rhetorical devices to "prove" their fandom the superior version (no matter which brand of football) the bottom line is that it merely is personal preference. There is no universal correct answer, only contextual and individual preference. 

We all have those situations or times where we don't see our own selfish presuppositions and biases. We may be quick to discount someone because of a sharp word or cold demeanor. We might think their stance on some political issue makes them stupid or smart. Unfortunately, it is this very judgment which divides and creates castes or classes of people. Our society is filled with this language, whether economic (middle class, job creators), cultural (popularity, relevant, creatives), national (American, German) generational (Millennials, Baby Boomers), or the uglier bigotries of racism, sexism, and religious fanaticism. 

Personally, I believe that anything which dehumanizes other people by reducing their inherent identity and worth into such categories are the bad actions we are capable of. When categories become stereotypes and judgments then we are acting out of self-interest and rationalization. Therefore these are bad actions. 

The flip side, our good actions, are simply those rooted in love. They limit the self for the sake of others. It values others for who their are despite categories. The good is that which binds us together, with each other, God, and the creation around us. Good is knowing and being known. It's relational.

If wanting an ancient theological take, we see God create just such a world in Genesis. He creates a world which he calls "good." Then he creates man and woman "in our image." Note that God speaks in relational, plural terms. The relational nature and capability of humanity is found right in the origin of the world. The dynamic creation surrounding us is intricately woven together in relationship. Humanity is then created and placed in a position of stewardship and responsibility, with infinite value and love, between the creator and creation. Humanity exists for relationship. "The fall," of Adam and Eve is eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Original sin, the disobedience to God, is wrapped up in our self-asserting need to justify our actions and judge others are good or bad. 

Reinhold Niebuhr puts original sin this way, " The fundamental nature of original sin, the sin that underlies our individual transgression, is refusal of creatureliness; in other words, idolatry of self." I would describe what Neibuhr calls creatureliness as our own awareness of our self and limitations (perhaps humility?). We are not God. We are not immortal, and we shouldn't not think too highly of ourselves. We are not able to exist on our own. We exist only in relation to the world around us. Do we relate solely for self, or for others?

Returning to the question: What makes a good man?

I believe that love is the key. Love is not coercive and cannot be forced. When we love, we do not categorize or scream for our right to do something. Rather, we come alongside and submit ourselves to others, realizing that rights are merely a starting point for life. We all inherently know when others have loved us. When we are valued without condition, embraced, and accepted in spite of ourselves. A good person is the one who can take all the negative actions of divisiveness and self-idolatry (our struggle to make our name mean something, often at the expense or comparison of others) and live responsible lives that recognizes others as equally valuable beings. 

How many of us ever go to a funeral of someone we have never met or do not know? Is it not easier to claim that people are good if we know them, while it is equally easy to call someone bad or evil because we do not know them personally?

Good is contextual. It ultimately stems from knowing someone based on what we do know of them. God can call creation good because God knows it. Good men and women are those who seek to know others, and allow themselves to be known.

We are capable of good and bad because we can choose to value others as beloved as we know them more, or we can judge and use others to achieve our own ends.

We are capable of being good because we can choose to love.

Listening, encouraging, bearing with one another, and being present makes a good man. Being present to others in this journey of life, as each individual person wrestles with their own self-idolatry and acceptance of the divine transcendence of a love that has not qualifications for worthiness. Surely it is imperfect, but the good can forgive. Perhaps not immediately, but eventually.

No matter what circumstances happen, because being a good man is vulnerable. Others may reject, betray, or attempt to take advantage of you. People can choose to submit to some other pursuit than love because it appears to benefit them or secure them in a world viewed as hostile or at odds with their self-identity. Rather than releasing the struggle into mutual embrace, they strive to clamber over others into a position that calms their anxiety with an ignorance or outright disdain for others who are in their way. 

For the good man, vulnerability in the face of such rejection is acceptable. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, the good (or perhaps now we tread into language of the wise), the recognize those self-interested pursuits as fleeting and ultimately meaningless. Not that the good person hasn't also pursued meaningless pursuits, but rather they have learned to release them for the common, unconditional love of this fragile, finite, sacred, and beautiful thing called life. A good person can accept suffering, pain, joy, and prosperity equally well because they know that none of it changes the inherent value and worth of the individual.

A good man is one who lives in a way that seeks to know and love those around him. Everyone is capable of choosing to live this way, in ever single moment.We end at the now. Each of us has exactly, and only, the present moment to choose to act in love or if we choose self-idolatry. None of us can make others view us as good or loving by trying to meet our own prosperity. Other see us as good, just as we see others as good, if we love and value them.

If a Speaker for the Dead shows up in the next moment for you, because this moment is your last moment, what will that person piece together out of your actions? An idolatrous pursuit of self, or a loving acceptance of interconnected life?

My final answer, stripped down to a minimum of words, to the question: What makes a good man?

Love makes a good man.