Is Good the Absence of Bad?
So, the question was, “How was your day?” This is such a benign question, often asked as a place holder before, “What do you want for dinner?” It’s also a short greeting between friends used as a conversation starter rather than a genuine interest in what happened to that person on that particular day. In fact, I’d go so far as to say most people don’t really want to know how your day went. Often, it’s just too much information, especially at the end of the day. I think if someone was honestly interested in what kind of day you’re experiencing, they’d call during the day and ask, “How is your day going?”
Now, I know that kind of interaction would be an imposition in most cases, but at least it would show concern for their experience and give you a chance to help shape the final outcome of their day rather than just hearing about how it went.
Maybe that’s just my brain. My brain likes information and it likes to act on information. It’s not looking for an emotional connection to the information nor to the person giving the information, necessarily. It’s just looking for input to work on until it can gather enough to work on something else.
So, in answer to the question posed, I answered, “Fine, I guess.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” he asked.
“Well, nothing went wrong,” I said, thinking back to the events of the day, “I guess you could say that was good,” was my response. I looked at his expression and I could tell he didn’t get the nuanced variation in my use of the word good.
“Look,” I said, “there are two ways to look at good. Either something good actually happened, or nothing bad happened, which defaulted to good. So without getting into detail about either, the neutral ‘I guess so’ should suffice.”
Again, a puzzled expression appeared on his face.
“Imagine you’re walking home,” I continued, “and you find a ten dollar bill on the ground. Nobody is around so nobody can claim it. It’s just free money. You pick it up and put it into your pocket. Would you say you had a good day?” I asked.
“I suppose,” was the response. “I guess it depends.”
“Depends?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he said. If you really needed the money then it would be a great day. If it was just money I didn’t have and didn’t need because I was wealthy, it would just be a fortunate occurrence; not necessarily good. More like okay. It might be dictated by my mood at the time. For example, what if my dog died that day and I was walking back from burying my longest living companion. I wouldn’t call that a good day, even if I’d tripped over a bag full of ten dollar bills.”
“I’ll give you that,” I relented, “but let’s put all the depends on the back burner for this example and just tell me if you think free money is a good indicator you’re having a good day. A stroke of good luck that brightens your day, even.”
“Okay, then yes. That would be a good day.”
Emboldened, I continued, “now, what if you’re ten years old and you regularly got mugged for your lunch money on your way to school and today no one stopped and mugged you for your lunch money,” I continued, “would you say it was a good day because you didn’t get mugged?”
“Well, there’s a lot of day felt to turn sour, but it sounds like I got a pretty good start,” he said.
“So then, it is possible or permissible to define the absence of bad, as good?” was the question I posed.
There was a long pause.
“I guess it all depends on how hard you look for good. Are you finding good in all that you see, regardless of circumstances? And if you are, does that mean you’re a positive person naturally and trying to always see the good around you, or does it mean your life is fraught with sadness and you must look deeper into each circumstance if you are to find any joy at all?” he said.
I continued my point, “St. Augustine of Hippo wrote that it is only in comparison against evil that we enjoy and admire good even more when we experience it. He was speaking more to the philosophical notion of the absence of good, rather than evil itself. It’s called prevatio boni, in Latin. I merely pose the question in reverse order. If there is no bad for comparison’s sake, can that inherently be called good?”
We both sat in silence, each consider not only our own thoughts on the matter, but trying to digest the argument being presented, perhaps not in opposition, but in inquiry.
Finally breaking the silence, I finally asked, “Are you in a good mood?”
“Right now?” he said.
“Yeah, right now,” I replied.
“I’m not in a bad one,” he said.
“To me, that answer only denotes neutrality. I wonder, as humans, do we interpret neutrality as inherently weighted, however slightly, toward good rather than bad? Do we ever take that statement to mean, ‘I’m on the verge of being in a bad mood, so watch what you say from here on.“
“If it is the former, and you always see goodness, then are you more vulnerable to those circumstances in which evil creeps into your view of the world? Are you less able to demonstrate steadfastness in the face of adversity, whereas those around you, who appear more nonchalant by the realities of the world, continue to function, seemingly without effort or agony? Ultimately, which would you rather be and which would you rather be with?” I asked.
Who are You and Who do you Prefer to Be?
“Kurt Vonnegut is quoted as saying ‘people are who they pretend to be, so be careful9 who you pretend to be.’ As you think about answering that question, ask yourself if your answer is who you really are, or who you’d pretend to be given the situation or circumstance,” I said.
“I’m glad you made that distinction,” he started, “because I think the majority of us give the answer that makes them look the best in the daily face of adversity. So, to be honest, I’d have to be in the situation to know what I’d do exactly. What about you? Who are you?”
I thought for a long moment as if deciding which I am or which I’d like to pretend to be, but in reality I was trying to determine how best to present the answer I knew to be the truth without seeming overly heroic, because that’s not how I’d like to portray myself.