In Defense of Complexity: Static vs. Story

Continuing thoughts on complexity…

Have you ever noticed that Santa’s not the only one keeping a naughty list? Just scroll through the headlines on your news app or watch a few late night comedy clips. We all have them—personal lists, collective lists.

I am a little obsessive about mine. I’ve spent hours reading the testimonies of women and children who suffered abuse at the hands of corrupt spiritual leaders. I can privately and passionately spew out an extensive list of names—people I will never respect and never did. I don’t think about the men on my list with any nuance or grace. I side with the headlines and the comedians, labeling them society’s arch-villains. 

But if I’m really honest, I think that’s a problem. It’s a problem for me, a problem for America. We fail to see people’s lives as unfolding stories, and instead we see them as statically good or bad.

“Is it possible that evil is never total, that its victory, no matter how overwhelming, is never absolute?” asks Salman Rushdie. He continues, “Consider this fallen man. He sought without remorse to shatter the mind of a fellow human being; and exploited, to do so, an entirely blameless woman, at least partly owing to his own impossible and voyeuristic desire for her. Yet this same man has risked death, with scarcely any hesitation, in a foolhardy rescue attempt.” 

My mom would call this guy a “mixed bag,” while I would be quick to label him a bad one. I’m really good at justifying myself. If a person crosses my lines, I will not support them in any public leadership position. Ever. I will also refuse to celebrate any goodness in them. Do you have lines like that too?

Here’s a story that happens over and over: people do bad things (for all have sinned…). Over time, some people become powerful and influential. Inevitably, their mistakes and poor choices are uncovered. In a violent media frenzy, a new name is added to our collective naughty list. On the list, there’s no room for evolution, transformation, or repentance. Fill in the blank: once a _____, always a _____. 

That kind of thinking shuts down conversation. It scares people away from being honest about where they’ve been and what they’ve done because they know they’ll end up with a scarlet letter. It encourages people to hide and defend, not process and repent.

We’re particularly lazy about all of this when it comes to history. Take any major U.S. historical figures—the pilgrims, the founders, the settlers, the civil war leaders. As a nation, we struggle to celebrate their goodness without endorsing their badness. We want the comfort of assigning people to one side or another. We don’t want to wrestle with the messiness that is human.

Marilynne Robinson said in an interview, “Calvin says that God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people. There’s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgress. King David, for example, was up to a lot of no good. To think that only faultless people are worthwhile seems like an incredible exclusion of almost everything of deep value in the human saga.”

So I guess this post is a challenge to me and to you. Can we choose to celebrate goodness in people without endorsing their badness? Can we see them in all the complexity of their humanness? I hope we can. We need to try.

“There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

MLK

More reading: Virtuous Evildoers, First Things

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