The Banality of Good

I believe it was Kierkegaard who said that life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forward. I could go look it up, but even if it wasn’t him, you know what whoever it was is getting at – we never understand the present nearly as well as we understand the past, because the past can be examined.

And examine it we do. In the current mess we live in, it seems every journalist, thought leader, guru, and pundit has a different opinion about how we got here. If we took away all the posts that blame others for where we are, would Facebook even be a viable business?

The past is written in stone, however, and will not change. While the past is useful for teaching us what went wrong, the future is written in sand, is infinitely malleable, and is where we should put most of our efforts.

How do we get there from here? How do we build the world as it is into the world as it could be? How do we change the future?

Having been in movement work for well more than a decade now, organizing poor people in the South, I have had the privilege of knowing some of the best activists and organizers in the US – some of whom are famous, but most of whom you have never heard of.

A while back, one of them – a woman who creates a place of refuge and safety for people without homes in a Midwestern town – and I were talking about a group that had just come through to tour her facility. The group was from an out-of-town church, and they had heard of her work and wanted to come to see the “radical” work this woman was doing.

She told me the group seemed happy when they left, but that while leading them around, she had felt a bit like a fraud.

“It doesn’t feel radical. It just feels like my life”.

I told her she was in good company – that Dorothy Day had felt the same way. In the postscript of Dorothy Day’s memoir, the Catholic activist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement describes how the movement came about, or at least, how it felt.

“We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, ‘We need bread.’ We could not say, ‘Go, be thou filled.’ If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread. We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded. We were just sitting there talking and someone said, ‘Let’s all go live on a farm.’ It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”

It all just happened. We were just sitting there, talking when it happened.

Of course, the truth is, the Catholic Worker did not just happen by accident. But it wasn’t the result of a grand plan, either. The reality is that it was the result of countless decisions. Ordinary decisions.

In her writings on the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “The banality of evil”. We want to believe, she argued, that massive evil is caused by external forces. Hitler was a psychopath, say, or that Eichman was mentally ill. But that isn’t true.

The reason massive evil happens is because of countless small compromises, countless small decisions that, on their own, are relatively benign and ordinary. Big evil is the result of little evil, quiet evil, banal evil done again and again and again.

I have come to believe the opposite is true as well. Goodness, Peace, Love, Harmony – whatever you want to call it, isn’t the result of grand sweeping gestures, but tiny micro-actions, repeated often. And that the banality of goodness, to coin a phrase, is the sort of thing Dorothy Day is describing in her postscript. Somebody said “We need bread” and so, instead of saying back, “Well, that sucks,” they went and got them some bread. And then they did it again, and again.

So, the good news in all of this is that if Goodness is brought about not by Saints, but by small decisions, then we all get to be involved. We all get to play a part in turning the world as it is into the world as it should be. And every little bit – our little bit – counts.