Who Are the Good People?

Diogenes claimed he could not find an honest man.

Diogenes claimed he could not find an honest man.

Some say that the answer to our gun problem is for more good people to have more guns to counter the bad people with guns. The question this leads me to ask is, who are the good people?

Let’s say it right away: my first sentence leads me into an impasse that is as impossible to untangle as the Gordian Knot. I know there is no convincing anyone of anything on this subject. All of us just about have our minds made up on the gun issue and there are other reasons, as I will lay out, why no one will be moved on this subject by argument or reason. So if you think this is a political missive you are misinterpreting what I am saying. I’d like, as much as possible, to stick to my area of expertise – psychology – and use this national dichotomy to illuminate a point about human nature, and avoid, as much as I can, getting into the political morass. (Good luck on that one, you might say!)

Yes, I will admit, I do have a problem with the assertion that more guns in the hands of the good is the answer to our problem of gun death. And it’s because of my original question: who are the good people?

I suppose that when folks say that more good people should have guns, they mean that the good people are the law abiding citizens, and the bad are the criminals. More to the point, they mean that they themselves are the good folks, and the bad people are somebody else.

However, any cursory student of human nature knows that there is no such thing as a “good person,” unless we are referring to Jesus, Buddha, or the like. Equivalently, there is no such thing as a “bad person,” though some folks come awfully close. Rather, we are all good and bad.

In all my years as a therapist I never met a person who was all good, and not, at least, capable of bad, if to no one other than themselves. I, certainly, have done all kinds of bad things.

On the other hand, I spent some time working at the Westchester County Jail, and liked just about every felon I met there. There was good in everyone I worked with, even the guy who killed his brother with a hammer.

Our brains are wired such that given the right circumstances, we are capable of almost anything. I have worked with many quite conventionally upstanding people who, for example, have had affairs that went on for years, and had very little moral compunction about it. It was only after they had been caught and were forced to face the pain of their husband or wife that some switch flipped and they felt remorse and shame for what they had done. It was as if their moral conscience had been turned off for a protracted period of time. I have certainly experienced that loss of moral center, myself, so I know what that is like. Have you?

I’ve also seen the capacity for destruction that we have when under the pervasive influence of certain drugs or alcohol. The addict who gets clean and goes through the twelve steps makes a fearless moral inventory because one of the cornerstones of healing is to recognize, and feel, the harm we have caused others.

The problem is, most of us don’t want to think of ourselves as black and white, as good and bad. In fact, one reason that this argument about guns cannot be solved is because no one wants to admit they are wrong, just about ever. We all want to think of ourselves as good and right. Even the terrorists who rape children believe they are doing a good thing!

We have a really hard time admitting that we are not completely in control of ourselves. Freud said that the scientific age brought about three terrible blows to our narcissism, or sense of self. The first was Copernicus who proved that we are not the center of the universe. The second was Darwin, who proved that we are not unique or chosen but are rather a part of the chain of life. Third was Freud, who showed us that we are not masters in our own house, that is, there are forces that motivate us that are inaccessible to our awareness. Despite these second and third facts having been around for over a hundred years, many people still have trouble accepting them!

As the cartoon character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” What happens when we do not admit our own capacity for evil, is that we project it on to others. We see the danger out there, rather than in here. This leads to all kinds of problems, like the scapegoating of entire groups of people. The Germans in the mid-twentieth century projected their own capacity for destruction on the Jews, and believed they were doing a good thing by eliminating the evil in their midst. They were unconscious of the fact that it was they who were the perpetrators of evil. It is hard to face, but most of those Germans, in other circumstances, would have been considered good people. They were no different, fundamentally, from you and me. Give someone a gun, an enemy, and permission, and they can act in unspeakably horrific ways. Oh, and if you think it doesn’t happen here, just remember Abu Ghraib.

It is easy to see how someone else is projecting, but virtually impossible to see our own projections. You can see it in the crusaders, folks like former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who worked to “eliminate evil and root out corruption” while he was spending untold sums on s and m hookers. You can see it in the witch hunters of Salem, who were trying to root out the devil, but they themselves were the ones who were burning people alive. We can also understand Trump through the lens of deep, unconscious projection. When he says we need to get rid of those people, or not let those people in, until we figure out what the hell is going on here, he is really talking about himself.

We pose the greatest danger to ourselves and others to the extent that we are unconscious of our own capacity for bad. The greater our lack of awareness, the more we project our own unacceptable parts onto others, the more we see others as a source of danger and badness, and the more we want to destroy the other as the source of that badness. The terrorists see themselves as all good, righteous in the eyes of the prophet and destined for heaven, while projecting the bad onto the “infidel.” On the other side, all too many of us project the bad onto “illegal immigrants” or Muslims, and want to build a wall to keep them out, or bomb them into oblivion.  When we are caught in this illusory web, nothing will make us feel safe, because the thing we want to destroy has a life of its own inside of ourselves. Despite spending six hundred billion dollars a year and owning over three hundred million guns, we still don’t feel safe!

But wait a minute, there is good and bad, there is right and wrong, isn’t there? If one side is wrong doesn’t the other side have to be right? I, you must be thinking, may be projecting, but I’m still better than the other guy, aren’t I?

Projections aren’t completely wrong. They often land on fertile ground. The problem is, they tend to be narrow and incomplete. We direct our own movies and we edit out the parts we don’t like and put a bright light on the parts that serve our view. When Trump calls someone stupid, he’s not completely wrong. In fact, like a drunk, he often has keen insight into other’s flaws. The problem is, the person isn’t only stupid. They are also smart. And, he doesn’t see his own stupidity. As Jesus said, we see the mote in someone else’s eye (that is, a speck of dirt) but we don’t see the beam (or very large log) in our own.

It is a difficult, spiritual, task to expand our view of the other, to, again as Jesus would put it, to love thine enemy. And of equal importance, we must expand our view of ourselves. We must accept, as painful as it is, that the most abhorrent characteristics we hate about others live inside of us. For those of us on the left, we have to admit that there is a Ted Cruz that lives in us, and for those of us on the right, we must admit that there is a Bernie Sanders that lives in us.

The more we can own these parts of ourselves, the less likely we are to demonize others. People with personality disorders like Donald Trump can be hard to love. Consumed as they are with self-hatred, no public admiration is ever enough to fill their inner emptiness. But despite their extraordinary efforts to be spectacular and gain everyone’s attention, unconsciously they march a self-destructive path that will insure that they will be seen like how they feel inside – which is bad. But, again if we follow Jesus’s creed, we must give Donald our other cheek. And not only him, but the faceless terrorist. We don’t have to condone their behavior, nor do we have to permit them to bring their weapons into our home, but if we are going to get anywhere in this crazy world of ours, we have to see that the other is really you and me.

This all makes it understandable why we’re never going to convince anyone of anything. No one of us wants to admit we are wrong, or that we are bad, and that is what each side in the gun debate is saying to the other side. That’s part of the reason why we are in such a political pickle. To criticize my candidate is to criticize me, because if I picked the wrong guy it means I am wrong and bad! For a climate-change-denier to admit that climate change is real and man-made would bring up intolerable shame. To admit that we sent our young men and women to die and kill in Iraq for no good reason is to undermine the very foundation of our self-concept, that we are good. For the members of ISIL to admit that their vision is wrong would require them to face the evil that lurks within them. Who of us wants to do that?

But even though I can’t expect others to do this, this is exactly what I must do myself. Whenever I find myself feeling repulsion at another, it is my task to find how I am like that person and how they are like me. Facebook provides this challenge for me every day. I have friends who I have known for decades who I admire and love in many ways. Yet I find their political views, frankly, insane. Yet, I know they are more than these views. I can understand with compassion their human struggles and limitations. I have known and seen their virtues and have benefitted from their goodness. I know all the things we agree on and love in common.

We can all say, well, why should I show that generosity of spirit to others when they will not extend the same to me? In couples therapy, I call this couple trap number one, which is, “I will if you will, but you won’t so I won’t.” In this game nobody does, and nobody wins. The alternative game is, (though it is harder to play) “I will whether you do or not.” In this game, if both people play, everyone wins. I can’t wait for you to open your heart and mind to me – I must do it for you irrespective of whether you do it or not.

So, we are all good and bad, a nice mottled gray. My job is to do the harder thing and to see the good in you and the bad in me. But knowing that no matter how hard we try we will all remain somewhat unconscious, and therefore subject to projection, and that given the way the brain works, when we feel threatened or consumed with shame we may lose connection to our moral core.

I’d be happy to give only the good people guns. If only I knew who they were.

3 comments

  1. Lawrence Cross /

    Very nice Glen and a completely appropriate topic in my view. Who are the good people, indeed?? Much too large and nuanced a topic to cover thoroughly in this forum, but I would add one thing: I don’t believe there is a single solution that meets all needs. Montana and Maine should not be held to NYC standards, but NYC should be able to create standards suitable for what’s going on in its universe. Thanks for tacking this topic.

  2. Dr. B, I always look forward to your posts

  3. Patrick /

    Glenn,
    As I approach 30 yrs married I am challenged ( as usual by your posts ) to reflect on the “patterns” of behaviour in my past 3 decades. My question to me is what potential for damage lurks beneath my personal patterns of behaviour? For my sanity it is the 15 minutes of prayer each morning that provides me with the necessary cleansing, accountability, perspective, protection, patience & focus necessary for today’s mountains & molehills.
    Weapons within the domestic setting just do not fit within this creative struggle.
    God speed to you and yours Glenn
    Patrick

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