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On Acting Wrongly

George Bernard Shaw, a playwright from around the time of World War I, is given credit for saying, “Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world.”

It’s good advice that few seem to consider.

A few years back, when the news was full of such “happy” events as suicide bombings and such, someone asked me casually what I’d do if God were to ask me to go kill someone. Like, if I heard what I knew was the voice of God saying, “Those people there: kill them.”

Note that “happy events” referred to in the previous block are… actually not happy events at all. I find them tragic. The use of “happy events” is sarcasm, and I find it appalling that I feel like I need to explain that because of the Inquisition.

My response was that I’d say, “No, you do it. You’ve got a lot more experience than I do, you’d do a better job. You want it done, you get right on it.”

It’s not that I’m afraid to act. I do things that I believe are “commanded by God” all the time: I am kind to people to the best of my ability, I try to help where I am able and in whatever way I can. I don’t consider myself a righteous man, a tzaddik, but I try to act in such a way that others might be inspired to act the same.

It doesn’t work.

It’s too easy to aspire to low behavior; being kind is so much work, and involves so much forgiveness, and it’s easier to just be angry when people think and do harmful things.

It’s much more fun to denigrate someone who thinks differently or acts differently than it is to actually reach out to that person and try to understand why or maybe even help them do better than they have done.

Yet I try to be hard-headed about it. I want my windows to be clean, as Shaw says, because I want to see a clean, bright world. Leave grit and dirt and awfulness for the movies. If I want noir it’s out there; I don’t want to be able to get it by watching the evening news.

It’s not a perfect world, nor can it be, I think… but if we try, if we attempt by ourselves to be a small touch of the light we want to see in the world, we can make it better, bit by bit.

It only takes restraint at first. If someone says something awful, or stupid… imagine walking along with them, understanding why they might say something awful or stupid. That allows you to forgive them.

Then imagine being where they are and being able to say, “There’s a better way.” Imagine inspiring someone to do better, into trying. That’s helping them “clean their windows,” and it cleans yours.

The world is a harsh place; your desire won’t put food on your table, won’t find you love, won’t help you become what you desire to be. You have to desire, but you have to act.

Observing all of the evil in the world isn’t enough. You have to be good. It doesn’t require that you become perfect; goodness knows I’m not perfect. I fail to help everyone around me, because I can’t – I’m tired, I need help myself.

But I can say that I try, with a clean conscience. I can say that I actively try to harm none, even those people whose views I disagree with on a core level. There are certainly some I would struggle with, but most of the people with whom I disagree would be people I’d be able to break bread with, and have a cordial conversation; heck, I’d love that. It’d be worlds better than arguing over minutiae on Facebook.

I know, I know, I’m rambling. I’m just trying to process recent events, which are distressing and feel faintly final, mostly because I’m struggling to see how people are trying to actually make things better, instead of just trying to win.

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