Seeing good—and God—in people!

On one of my neighborhood walks, I came across some more “sidewalk graffiti” in front of the Williams Street Elementary school here in Norwood.  Of the many new slogans scrawled in chalk beneath one’s feet as one walks along reading the words on the pavement, I encountered “See Good in People.”  (It hasn’t rained for a while, so by now I have already seen this quite a few times). This thought could probably be a bit grammatically enhanced, but then again it has a real directness to it as it is.

So what can we make of this “sidewalk semi-evangelism?” It is a positive message that is encouraging the students to look for the “good” in others, which would also lead them to respecting each other. It therefore presupposes that there is “good” to be found in everyone, a basically “upbeat” appraisal of human nature. We like to protect our children from early symptoms of cynicism. The “good” is a pretty comprehensive word that would include kindness, friendliness, honesty, sincerity, patience, tolerance, compassion, and a willingness to help, to mention some of the more meaningful descriptions of the “good.” Basically, the “good” is about the pursuit of virtue. It further encourages the students to look past the outer and more superficial levels—looks, clothing, etc. Yet, to “see” the good means that is there will be times when one must look beyond the “bad” that also appears from time to time in student relations. Young children can also be mean-spirited toward one another. Inappropriate words can be exchanged, even fights can break out. That is why rules of conduct exist in our schools. We need to be realistic about human nature also. This is all very Orthodox—which is why I referred to this slogan as “semi-evangelism.” And that is why we, as Orthodox Christians, encourage our children to come to Confession by the age of seven. At that age they can distinguish within themselves what is “good” and what is “bad.” And they need to recognize and admit what is “bad,” or what we call sin.

To further “orthodoxize” this sidewalk slogan, one would simply have to eliminate one vowel from the word “good”—the second “o”—and then it would read “See God in People.” In our current cultural/social setting, which is fiercely secular in any public forum, that would prove to be, of course, “too much.” Which is fine. I am simply expanding upon my own train of thought when I first read “See Good in People” during an evening walk. My mind had something to focus on for the rest of the way home. We can see God in other people because that is the express will of God: to see the “other” as created in God’s “image and likeness” with an eternal destiny and the promise and potential of being a deified creature that will “shine like the sun” in the Kingdom of God. That is a very positive assessment of human nature! Every person we encounter has that potential destiny according to our understanding of God’s revelation. We respect that and thank God for it. We need to “see” that and keep it firmly in mind, since we are frequently deeply disappointed with our actual daily encounters and in the world around us. (We should be even more disappointed in our own inability to manifest the light of God’s image within us and confess that when it happens).

As Orthodox Christians nourished on biblical revelation, we thus maintain an over-all positive assessment of human nature together with a very realistic understanding of the distortions our human nature can undergo through life’s journey and challenges. And those distortions can reach hideous proportions: Someone just shot over 500 people in one of our American cities. That can only be understood—if we can possibly “understand” this at all—as a total capitulation to the “dark side.” This is why Dostoevsky spoke of God and the devil battling for mastery of the human heart. (He actually derived that thought from Saint Macarius the Great, an early desert father). To “see God in people” can only help us overcome the manifold prejudices that inflict such a blight on our human relationships. Can we teach our children to “see good in people” if we do not, based on some prejudice we stubbornly cling to? It is almost impossible to be totally prejudice-free or, on a somewhat different level, to be free of all cynicism. But that is what Christ expects of those of us who bear His name.

As we continue to journey through life—and hopefully toward the Kingdom of God!—I continue to believe that without succumbing to “romanticism,” “superficial idealism,” or “sentimentality,” we need to and can “See Go[o]d in People!”