Two Ways to Cultivate Goodness

Two Ways to Cultivate Goodness September 23, 2017

Two Ways to Cultivate Goodness NEW

A number of the world’s religions have made the cultivation of goodness their primary goal, which—for a lack of another word—is good. Goodness is both a lofty and worthy ideal. Who wouldn’t want to be able to display more empathy, kindness, love, altruism, and compassion?

Having said that, there are two very different ways to achieve the goal of becoming a better person that have to do with strong emotions of attraction and repulsion. To understand the dynamics, it is important to realize that goodness cannot exist in a vacuum because it is a dualistic concept. For goodness to exist there has to exist something other than goodness. This means that when we are attracted by what we perceive as good, we are naturally repulsed by the opposite, and the stronger our attraction, the stronger the repulsion can become.

Anti-Smoking Sentiments Went Too Far

Let me give a personal example. When I quit smoking many years ago, I trained myself to be attracted to the benefits of being a non-smoker, and, simultaneously, trained myself to be repulsed by the act of smoking, all to convince myself of the merits of a smoke-free life.

It worked wonders. I haven’t smoked since.

However, I soon had to ease up on the anti-smoking sentiment. It was appropriate to begin with, while I was rooting my identity as a non-smoker, but when that was complete, I found myself being disgusted by other smokers and realized that I had taken the repulsive aspect too far. My goal was never to be repulsed by other people. It was the act of smoking that had gained my disdain, not people who found themselves trapped by the addiction.

Thankfully, I began helping people to quit within a year after I ditched the habit so I quickly integrated the difference between the act of smoking and the people committing the act and was no longer repulsed by smokers.

Attraction Automatically Generates Repulsion

My example illustrates two ways of cultivating goodness. One approach focuses on the beneficial elements of changing one’s behavior while the other focuses on the detrimental elements of the opposite behavior. One embraces on the sun while the other tries to eliminate the shadow.

“Focus on the sun! The shadow can’t be eliminated!” one could exclaim.

Sure. It would probably be better if we could just focus on the positive aspects of goodness and cultivate niceties without accruing any dislike for their opposites, but it is harder than you think, near impossible I would say.

Have you, for example, tried to change your diet? Have you noticed that the more you are attracted to healthy foods, the more unhealthy foods disgust you? The stronger the attraction becomes, the stronger your repulsion. If you are moderately attracted to healthy foods, then you are moderately repulsed by unhealthy foods. But, once you are a “health nut”—affectionately called so by others who don’t share your strong attraction (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)—you have to work on not condemning all those who have the occasional candy bar, soda, or fast-food meal, or, you may realize that you are continually railing against sugar- and processed food industries as evil.

I use food to illustrate my point here, because everyone understands that. At the same time, the example is true of all other persistent efforts to cultivate goodness. One must be vigilant not to fall prey to condemnation and repulsion. A mood can turn on a dime. You can be perfectly focused on increasing a behavior that you and those around you consider ‘good’ one moment, and lost in a fit of rage over another person’s opposite behavior the next.

The lyricist was right when he said that “there’s thin line between love and hate.”

Repulsion Often Flourishes in Religion and Politics

We see this urge clearly in politics, where people are willing to accuse each other of malevolence just because of differing political ideologies. All the while, both sides consider themselves virtuous. The stronger the attraction to the ideology is, the stronger the repulsion for its opposite becomes.

Most prominently, however, we see this proclivity in religion. And in religion, we have another force to contend with. It is not just that a single person has chosen this or that behavior for him or herself; it is that, through a combination of religious scripture and creeds issued by communities of believers, behaviors have been chosen for those who follow that religion. They are told, in no uncertain terms, what is good and what is evil.

Unfortunately, such distinctions don’t always come from illumined sources. Rabbi Jonathan Henry Sacks recently pointed out that each of the world’s religions includes “potential minefields” that need to be weeded out. Many religious scriptures include condemnation of women, homosexuality, certain eating habits, types of clothing, and much more. Some of these and other offenses were/are even punishable by death, which shows an exceptionally strong repulsion.

There is Another Way

Thankfully, not everyone agrees with the repulsion approach.

Helen Keller described the human fascination with repulsion well when she said:

“It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui.”

Mary Baker Eddy reminded us to:

“Reject hatred without hating.”

Saint Teresa of Avila underscored the same idea a little differently by saying:

“To wish to act like angels while we are still in this world is nothing but folly.”

Personally, I wrote a novel about this topic, titled Premature Holiness, because I believe that the very ideas of holiness and perfection inadvertently pull us in the direction of strong repulsion.

And yet, no matter how we play this game, strong repulsion is always there, a counteracting force to any strong attraction. If I love this then I am likely to hate that. It is only with great humility and awareness that anyone can counteract this natural tendency. We must continually remind ourselves that even though we consider our chosen path to be good, it is not necessary to offer a blanket condemnation of the opposite without rigorous investigation and contemplation.

So, as we plod our path towards increased compassion, love, empathy, and altruism, we must never forget that along with strong attraction comes strong repulsion, and, that although sometimes appropriate, it can subvert positive efforts and create the exact opposite of what we were aiming for.

Our love for one thing can, if we are not careful, create a hate for another.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author & Interfaith Minister

Picture: CC0 license

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