COLLAPSING THE SACRED (part 3: good and bad)

“You couldn't relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You have to accept it as a whole--like the world, or the person you loved.” – Stewart O’Nan (The Odds: A Love Story)

We think in binaries, yet exist in liminality.

What does that mean?

It means that when it comes to understanding a world filled with complexity, our brains are always looking for the path of least resistance.

If a person does a bad thing, they are a bad person.

If someone tells you a lie, they are a liar.

If someone steals, they are a thief.

Conventional wisdom would agree with you. You might not want to judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly judge a person by their actions.


But this isn’t how we think all of the time.

There is a remarkable disparity that exists in all of us when it comes to evaluating failure. It is this disparity that I think, if we are open to it, leads us down the path of truly understanding how to experience joy in life.

The disparity exists in the way that we judge others, compared to the way we judge ourselves. Put in the simplest terms possible; we judge other people by their actions, and we judge ourselves by our intentions.

Think about it for a second.

When someone has failed you, the first think you think about is what they did.

When you fail, the first thing you think about is what you meant to do.

“You hurt me.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Yes, but you did.”

Action. Intention.

When it comes to our own failures, we instinctively know that there is more to it than a simple action. We know that behind our failures there is a story of struggle, suffering, attempt, resilience, an entire history of pain. There is just so much there. We know this, and we want other people to know it too.

When it comes to someone else however, we are (usually) quick to dismiss the intention as irrelevant. It is the action that resonates.

Even if we can see the intention, it’s not what matters most.

There are binaries that exist in our minds that create strong divisions between right and wrong, good and bad, left and right. These binaries aren’t always false, because they provide us with information, but they aren’t usually good indicators of what is really happening underneath the surface.

And there is always an under the surface.

We just often don’t want to know.

Because it makes it more complicated.

It’s easier to see a person who robbed a store at gunpoint as thoroughly and inherently violent. It’s simple to look at a person who has no home but is drinking and smoking, and make judgements about their financial competence. It’s easy to assume that the world can be easily categorised by un-critiqued and unquestioned observance. But it’s just not true.

People don’t do things for no reason.

You know it to be true,

and when you fail, you feel it more than ever.

Our natural proclivity toward binary thinking, or dualism, is why we struggle to reconcile ideas of suffering, pain and violence with stories about God, life and faith. It’s why we ask questions like:

If God is good,

How can bad things exist?

In our mind, one cannot coexist with the other.

The reality, of course, is that they simply do. Goodness exists. Evil exists. Sometimes good people do bad things and sometimes bad people do good things. This isn’t new information for now, it has always been this way.

For me, it is also one of the most beautiful contributions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the modern world. Our faith refuses to allow us to convince ourself that simple binaries dictate the substance of our lived experiences.

Jonathan Sacks puts is wonderfully. He says that “what readers of the Bible often find so disconcerting is that the heroes have faults, and the villains have virtues.”

He also makes an interesting observation:

Only in fiction are the great evils committed by caricatures of malevolence: Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, Sauron or the Joker. In real history the great evils are committed by people seeking to restore a romanticised golden age, willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others in what they regard as a great and even holy cause. In some cases they see themselves as ‘doing God’s work.’ They ‘seem happy.’ This is how dreams of utopia turn into nightmares of hell.

For Sacks, failure to recognise the complexity, nuance or ambiguousness that exists in the world leads to a kind of regressive cognition. One where we not only need to justify our simple worldview (to ourselves and others), but we are willing to defend it at all costs.

Our worldview is sacred,

because it makes sense of the world to us.

It’s how we construct meaning.

If we begin to see cracks in our vision of the sacred, then suddenly our whole world is under threat, and nobody enjoys being threatened.

To speak of Collapsing the Sacred is to recognise that life exists in the liminal spaces between dualisms and binaries.

It is rarely the case that something is either good, or bad. Right, or wrong.

That last sentence will have a certain type of person up in arms (did you feel the tension when you read it? That means I’m talking about you.) This person will now begin talking about things like objective truth, moral absolutes, fixed and rigid propositions. They may even throw in some extreme moral example to seal the deal.

Don’t get carried away.

Hear what I am saying.

Hear what I am not saying.

It is rarely the case that something is either good, or bad. Right, or wrong.

There is so much more to it than that.

There is so much more to us than that.

It is in exploring the complexity that exists under the surface that empathy is born. If you assume you know someone because you have seen their worst selves, you short-circuit the process of trying to understand who they are, and inadvertently we also, gradually, lose our connection to ourselves.

Grey Boyle is a priest who lives among the urban poor in LA. He works with people who do horrible things. If you listen to him closely though, you will hear one simple message shine through: people don’t do things for no reason.

He says that we “need to learn how to stand in awe of what people have to carry, instead of judgement about how they carry it.”

Mother Theresa says that if we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

We belong,

to each other.

And it is in belonging to each other,

in listening,

and leaning in,

and learning to hear the story of another,

that we become more fully ourselves.

Dualism is what happens to us when the world as we want it to exist is too radically different from the world as it currently is.

Dualism creates in us a kind of cognitive dissonance. We construct a world in which the armies of good and battling the armies of darkness. We align ourselves with the good and anyone who we fail to understand or agree with plays their part on the opposing side.

What we have missed in the construction of this world is the simple acknowledgement that the battle between good and bad isn’t happening around us.

It’s happening within us.

We simplify the world hoping that we will be able to better understand ourselves. We polarise life in an attempt to sanctify our own existence. We operate in dualisms as a way of convincing ourselves that we are on the right side.

But the battle within us continues.

Learning to accept the space in between binaries is the only way that we can even begin to think about how to live an authentic life.