I had this neighbour once. Ollie. He was a bit of an underdog, the sort of awkward teenager for whom everything just seemed to go wrong all the time. But he was kind, adorable, generous and hilarious. Despite the fact that he was everyone’s favourite punchline, my best friend, Carrie, and I took a liking to him. We knew we’d be drawn into the crosshairs of all the local bullies by hanging out with him, but we did anyway. He seemed worth it.
There was never much to do in Steveston, BC as a teenager. We were too young to go to bars and too old to enjoy playgrounds. So, we mostly just sat around and talked until our moms called us in. One summer evening, the three of us were sat on the sidewalk, chatting away in the balmy oceanside air. The sun was setting and we were clinging to the last of the day, trying to milk it for every last bit of enjoyment possible. I don’t recall what we were talking about, but I recall we were laughing. We were always laughing when we were with Ollie.
We were so immersed in our conversation, we didn’t notice someone approach. All three of us were startled when we heard,
We all looked up to see Ryan, the neighbourhood douchebag. Of course, back then, sitting around thoroughly enjoying the company of your friends was simply not cool enough to be considered a “life”. You had to be high or drunk or both, maybe even while driving to and from parties that would eventually be shut down by the cops. You didn’t really have a “life” unless you were risking a permanent criminal record and liver damage.
Normally, Carrie and I would just ignore Ryan. Normally, we’d just shrug it off and go about our day. Ollie, on the other hand, was subjected to this sort of antagonizing all day long, every day, from nearly everyone. He absorbed constant hatred from everyone around him and still managed to be nice. Even the nicest of nice people crack though, if you push one too many times and Ryan, it would appear, gave that final push that made Ollie break character. In a moment that seemed to stretch forever, we watched Ollie turn, still sitting on the sidewalk, look up at Ryan and calmy retort,
It was probably the best comeback I’d heard in the sixteen years I’d been alive. I was in awe of Ollie at that moment. I looked at him with an approving grin, discovered I’d begun clapping without realizing it and burst out laughing. Carrie couldn’t help it either. Ollie had only a few seconds to enjoy the admiration of his friends, though, because almost instantly, we saw his head violently jerk back after Ryan’s Doc Marten boot connected with his nose. We heard the crack and blood began gushing from Ollie’s face instantly.
I stared at my bleeding friend in shock, barely noticing the sound of Ryan’s footsteps running away. In that moment, my gaze connected with Ollie’s. The whites of his eyes were now pink and glistening and the corners of his mouth had dropped uncharacteristically low. My heart instantly ached and the air left my lungs. It was as if Ollie had reached out with an invisible hand and twisted me into a painful knot. His shoulders drooped and I could hear him trying to swallow his desire to cry. Before I even had the time to react physically, I could feel, down to my bones, just how deeply sad he was.
We quickly got Ollie home, helped his mom clean him up and said goodnight. It was over, Ollie was fine and we could start the day fresh in the morning. The thing is, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I lay in bed that night, unable to sleep, trying to stop my chest from feeling like it was caving in. I felt so desperately sad for Ollie. The scene played over and over in my mind and each time that boot hit Ollie’s nose with a crack, it was like someone tightened an invisible elastic around my heart. I skipped breaths, choked back tears and fantasized about getting revenge on Ryan.
There aren’t a whole lot of people on the planet who don’t have similar memories. Perhaps not as shocking or bloody, but we all have memories of someone getting hurt. Whether it’s emotional hurt or physical hurt, it’s the sort of hurt you saw, you recognized, and you felt by proxy. This memory of Ollie’s bloody nose is one of countless like it. Some are as simple as stepping on my dog’s paw by accident and hearing her yelp in pain; others are as life-altering as a boot to the face. Whatever they are, however, you have those memories just like everyone else because you have empathy.
You, just like me, can recognize pain in other human beings. Because you’ve experienced pain before, you know it doesn’t feel good. You can look into another human’s eyes and see sadness, anger, hurt. You know it’s not a good thing and you know that generally speaking, trying to avoid that which causes these bad feelings should be avoided.
So, when theists ask me, “why is good good and bad bad if there is no god?”, I can’t help but wonder if maybe they just lack empathy? I was raised without a god, never believed in one a day in my life, and yet I’ve never wondered what the answer to this question is.
Good is good because we can observe the effects of good – we recognize joy, happiness and gratitude in other people and because we’ve experienced these emotions before, we know they feel good. Bad is bad because we can also observe the effects of bad – we recognize anger, sadness and fear in other people and because we’ve experienced these emotions ourselves, we know they feel bad.
When a theist asks me how do we know good is good and bad is bad without a god, I often think back to that night with Ollie. I often wonder if the theist had been there with us, would he have witnessed Ollie get brutally kicked in the face and genuinely not known if it was bad or good without his god? If he’d found out that afternoon his god was not real, would he have actually felt indifferent about the boot connecting with Ollie’s nose? Would he have had no way to determine whether it was a good thing to do or an awful thing to do?
Then I think, maybe a theist was there with us that day. Maybe the theist was Ryan and he just hadn’t learned from his god yet that kicking people in the face is generally a bad idea. Perhaps he skipped Sunday School the day they taught that Doc Martens could do a fair bit of damage to a nose. Maybe god had failed to successfully write what is good and what is bad on Ryan’s heart. Worse yet, maybe his god told him to do it, like Robert Picton’s told him to kill sex workers and the Yorkshire Ripper’s god told him to do the same.
When I think about it that way, it makes me feel thankful that I’ve never been a theist and always been a human being who relies on her empathy and conscience to determine that good is good and bad is bad. I’m proud to be a humanist who would prefer, every time, to see right from wrong using my own compassion over an outdated old storybook. I’m proud to be the sort of person who would never be so morally vacant as to ask how we know right from wrong without a god.
Most of all though, I’m proud that I can trust myself to know I’d never put my boot in someone else’s face… even if God told me to.
This post is part of a series called Things The Godly Say. To read other entries in the series, click here.
Image: Licensed to Courtney Heard by Adobe Stock.