The light in the darkness of humanity
She sat through the funeral, weeping for the young man and all that would never be for him. She had been his teacher in high school, and he had been one of her favorites.
Just as the service ended, the young man’s mother approached her. She took a piece of paper out of her purse and handed it to the teacher. It had obviously been folded and refolded many times.
The mother said, “This was one of the few things in Robert’s pocket when the military retrieved his body.”
The teacher carefully unfolded the paper. When she saw what was on it, her mind flooded with memories and her eyes filled with tears. She remembered that day vividly, though she had no idea it had made such an impression on any of her students.
Years earlier, her class had been particularly fidgety and distracted one afternoon. She asked them all to stop their academic work. She wrote on the blackboard a list of all the names of everyone in the class. Then she asked each student to copy the list.
She instructed them to use the rest of the period to write beside each name one thing they liked or admired about that student. She collected the papers at the end of the class.
Weeks after the exercise, one another difficult day just before winter break, the teacher again stopped the class. She handed each student a piece of paper with his or her name at the top. On it she had pasted all twenty-six good things the other students had written about that person.
This was the paper Robert had kept with him all the time while serving in the military during the Gulf War.
As the teacher dried her wet cheeks, another former student standing nearby opened her purse, pulled out her own carefully folded page, and confessed she had always kept it with her as well. A third ex-student said that he had framed his page and hung it in his kitchen. Yet another shared that she had used the page in her wedding vows.
That simple exercise had obviously made a profound impression on that teacher’s students and had been a great source of comfort and inspiration to each of them.
See the light in the darkness
There is so much pain, suffering, darkness, and evil in this world. It’s so easy to see the darkness and be blind to the light and goodness that underlie and pervade this crazy mess we call humanity.
Yet in this true story*, we see how healing it can be when we see the goodness in everyone.
Seeing the goodness in people — in spite of and even because of their brokenness — is the most profound and beautiful gift we can offer the world. The basic goodness in people is unleashed as it is seen, acknowledged, and nourished.
The Christian mystic Thomas Merton wrote,
“The saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else.”
The true mark of genuine spirituality is the ability to see the goodness in everyone. And that starts with seeing the goodness in ourselves. The more we see the goodness in ourselves, the more we see it and are able to nourish it in others.
Human potential is unleashed, not by acknowledging our “sinful” nature, but rather by recognizing our basic goodness.
As Nelson Mandela — who had a lot of reasons to see the evil in people — said,
“It never hurts to think too highly of a person; often they become ennobled and act better because of it.”
Three ways to see your goodness
Here are three critical ways to discover your basic goodness and learn to love yourself in spite of your flaws, weaknesses, and shortcomings:
1. See your habitual defense mechanisms
Human beings can be so petty, judgmental, and critical. We can be so greedy and selfish. We can be so lustful and depraved. We can be so violent and destructive.
Yet when we look deeper, we find that these “sins” are caused, not by a sinful nature, but because we’re trying to protect ourselves from pain. Consider:
- The greedy rich man who grew up poor and deprived.
- The violent gangster who was routinely beaten at home and bullied at school.
- The promiscuous woman who was unloved by her father.
- The self-righteous preacher who was constantly told by his mother that he was a “bad boy.”
We’re born into this world unspoiled, whole, and perfect. Then, as we’re exposed to pain, we develop habitual defense mechanisms, which manifest in unwholesome ways.
Think of the things you like least about yourself. Think of your emotional triggers. Ponder how these things developed as defense mechanisms in response to pain.
2. See your ignorance and delusion
We act in misguided, unskillful, harmful, and destructive ways not because we are sinful and evil to our core, but rather because we have fallen asleep to our true nature. We sin not because it is our essential nature, but rather because of a basic ignorance and delusion.
When Christ charged us to be born again, He was not pointing out our fundamental badness; to the contrary, He was reminding us of our inherent goodness. Being born again is not an admission of our badness, but rather a remembrance and acceptance of our goodness.
Learn to see your “sins” and weaknesses, not as the product of an essentially flawed and broken nature, but rather a forgetfulness.
Being truly honest with yourself isn’t about seeing your badness and beating yourself up because of it. Rather, it’s about seeing your goodness and forgiving yourself for your ignorance. You are far more motivated to be and do good by self-compassion, rather than self-shame and self-criticism.
3. See your underlying unmet needs
Every “sin” you have ever committed has been an ignorant, misguided, unskillful attempt to meet underlying wholesome needs.
Pornography addicts aren’t lustful people seeking depravity — they are good people who feel unwanted and unloved and who are seeking to feel wanted and loved. Drug addicts aren’t evil people seeking cheap thrills — they’re suffering people seeking to numb out deep pain.
We all need to feel loved, to feel like we belong, to matter. We all need to be respected and supported. We all need meaning and purpose in our lives. We all need freedom and independence.
When our core, universal human needs are unmet, we get sick, emotionally, mentally, and physically. We suffer. And in our ignorance and delusion, we seek to meet our needs in counterfeits.
What are you most ashamed of in your life? Explore those actions and behaviors and ask yourself what the underlying unmet needs were that caused these behaviors.
Make love of yourself perfect
The greatest lie ever perpetrated upon humanity is that we are flawed, broken, inadequate, deficient, and unworthy to our core. This lie is the single most powerful tool of evil.
Nothing makes us “sin” more than an abiding and pervasive sense of our unworthiness. Sin is a desperate and misguided attempt to fill the hole in our souls that tells us we are not enough.
When we have an unquestioned and certain knowledge of our goodness, worthiness, and enoughness, we no longer feel the desire to sin — there is no hole to fill. We are whole and complete.
The redemption of humanity comes not by acknowledging our evil nature, but rather by recognizing our basic goodness. It comes not through judgment, shame, and criticism, but rather through love, compassion, and kindness.
This is even and especially true when we are at our worst. Christ taught us to love our enemies. And as Carl Jung once remarked, “Perhaps I myself am the enemy who must be loved.”
The 20th Century Indian meditation master Sri Nisargadatta once told his students,
“…all I plead with you is this: make love of your self perfect.”
Loving yourself does not mean to justify, rationalize, or excuse behavior. It does not mean to let yourself do whatever you want with no conscience.
It means seeing who you really are underneath your ignorance, delusion, and defense mechanisms. It means seeing your basic goodness and forgiving yourself for your unskillful, misguided behavior. It means coming home to who you always have been.
As the Tibetan Book of the Dead exhorts,
“O Nobly Born, O you of glorious origins, remember your radiant true nature, the essence of mind. Trust it. Return to it. It is home.”
*The true story of the teacher is told by Jack Kornfield in his book, The Wise Heart.