Sam Holstein

We All Do Terrible Things

What Matters Is How We Handle It When We Do

Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

For a long time, my moral framework was simple. In my mind, there were two classes of people: good people and bad people.

My views were a little more nuanced than that. A person in the class ‘good people’ may do bad things, such as betray a friend or hurt someone’s feelings. The people in the class ‘good people’ varied in their levels of goodness, too. Someone I respected at school was not of the same class of ‘goodness’ as Mother Teresa.

What delineated these good people from the bad people was an ‘evil intention in the heart.’ Good people sometimes did terrible things, but they were not ‘bad’ people. So-called ‘bad people’ did things because they had bad intentions toward others in their heart. Bad people could sometimes do ‘good’ things, but they did so only to satisfy the desires of their own heart. Bad people were the people who raped, who abused, and who abandoned their families. Good people sometimes did these terrible things, but only under extreme duress.

You may recognize this as the moral framework of Christianity. Christianity says that men desire evil in their hearts. What made my framework different from Christianity was that instead of everyone having evil intentions in their hearts, I thought that only a small amount of people did. Also, I believed people could jump ship from good to bad, and bad to good — although, I didn’t think it happened very often.

Within this context, my moral imperative, and the moral imperative of everyone else, was to continue doing the best we could at being good. We were also supposed to avoid the ‘bad’ people because the only ones who could save them were themselves.

When written out like this, this moral framework sounds stupid as hell. It’s riddled with philosophical holes. But, I held on to it for a long time.

One of the reasons I was able to hold on to it so long because this is the moral framework of American culture.

The best example of this I can think of is the uniquely American television show type drama-sitcom. This isn’t a formal television category, but once I explain, I think you’ll know what I mean. This category includes How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy, F.R.I.E.N.D.S., and any other show that includes both lighthearted humor and an excess of traumatic plot points.

Characters in these TV shows are often portrayed as either being in a state of ‘badness’ or ‘goodness.’ The plot conflicts almost always have a clear aggressor and clear victim. One partner cheated on the other, so the victim partner broke off the engagement. One character hit another character with their car. One character shot the other. These TV shows tend to stay away from aggressor-less traumas (such as unexpected deaths), except where they need to invoke this mechanism to break up the overly-perfect life of a ‘good’ character.

Another example of how American culture perpetuates this moral framework is in American news. Our news tends to cover things in a very sensational way. Headlines take the form ‘Terrible Bad Person Does Shocking Thing To Totally Innocent Victim.’ Sometimes this headline structure is warranted, like in the case of Larry Nassar and all those poor girls. But most of the time, it is not. Take politics, for instance. Sometimes, the government takes advantage of the innocent, and when that happens, sensational headlines make sense. But more often than not, political headlines are about the latest back-and-forth between two sets of corrupt people.

This moral framework is seeping into how we interact with each other as a culture. The language around racial relations is an excellent example. Our primary subject/object verbs are oppressed/oppressor. And these are valuable terms. But they have the side effect of making any individual member of the oppressor class feel like they are ‘bad people’ and any individual member of the oppressed class feel like they are ‘good people.’ This oppressor/oppressed dynamic exists right now between white people and minorities, men and women, even Democrats and Republicans. But in reality, the truth is more complicated. There are many members of oppressor classes who are charitable and good individuals. And, there are members of oppressed classes who are not.

Here is the truth: People do a variety of things in their lives, for a variety of reasons. Most people will do both charitable things and destructive things in their lives. Some people do more of one than the other, but we will all do both.

What’s more, people don’t always know when they do these things. We don’t have perfect knowledge. Because of our incomplete knowledge, we are bound to, in ignorance, make some terrible choices.

Some people make terrible choices because they are are carrying baggage that blinds them to the right choice. Some people make terrible choices because they are deluded into thinking they are good choices. Some people make terrible choices because they are scared of the consequences of making a good one. But for one reason or another, we all will make terrible choices.

To reference the cliche, we will all live to see ourselves become the villain, even if only for the briefest moment.

Given all these things, it’s impossible to discern the truth of a matter. It’s impossible to judge. We can’t look into the heads of others and see all the pressures on someone at any given moment.

And humans lack objectivity, which makes it challenging for us to judge ourselves as well.

Once I realized this, I finally understood the meaning of the phrase people had been telling me since I was three years old.

Don’t judge.

The problem is, people need to make judgments all the time.

But if we can’t judge, how do we move forward?

This brings me to the concept of repentance.

Repentance is a word often used in a religious context by Christians. Many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, are not fully aware of its meaning. They know only that the church calls them to repent and come to God. In my experience, most people think it means saying sorry.

In reality, to repent has a particular meaning that I can illustrate with a metaphor.

Imagine that your life is a path. You are walking down this path. To repent is to stop on that path, turn around, and start walking in the direction you came from.

Christians use it in the context of the path to and away from Jesus, but we can use it as well. Let’s use to mean the path to and away from being a good person.

It doesn’t matter where on the path someone is. It doesn’t matter what they’ve left behind on that path. What matters is where the path is taking them. What matters is, if they are headed in a bad direction, that they repent.

Because we will all, at some point, find ourselves headed in a bad direction. This truth isn’t even restricted to moral decisions. We will all find ourselves headed in bad directions in our career, in our health, in our relationships. When the time comes, we need to avoid getting bogged judging ourselves for things we have already done. We need to know how to repent.

But American culture doesn’t have room for repentance. Once someone’s been accused of a bad thing, it’s in our records forever. Their career will be ruined forever. If it puts them on a registry of any kind, they will be on that registry forever. Felons have their felony convictions forever.

For noncriminal matters, social stigmatization is used in place of criminal sentencing. People who have said undesirable things are ‘marked,’ or ‘known’ people that others shouldn’t talk to. We have labels like racist, sexist, homophobe, so on and so forth. These labels stick for a lifetime.

It’s easy to rationalize doing this when someone’s moral transgressions are heinous. No one is going to take a public stand to discuss Larry Nassar’s positive qualities.

But this philosophy breaks down when we start to consider more down-to-earth problems. This philosophy breaks down because, at some point, we need to draw the line — the line that sorts the good from the bad.

There is not a sharp divide between the “evil” men in the headlines and a mostly innocent public; rather there is a spectrum that we will all find ourselves on.
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And everyone, at some point, is going to draw close to this line. Everyone, at some point, is going to put one foot over.

But in an inflammatory, good-or-bad culture, there is no room for people to exist in these gray areas.

Because there is no room, when I found myself in this position, I didn’t know what to do.

All I could do was keep asking myself, am I good or bad? Good or bad?

This isn’t to say we should permit people to do bad things. People who are still doing bad things have not repented. We should give no breaks to people who haven’t repented. They’re hardly going to repent if they’re given free reign to keep doing bad things.

It comes back around to the fact that while people do good and bad things, people themselves are not good or bad. The reason we don’t give breaks to people who haven’t repented isn’t a measure of their goodness or badness. We don’t give breaks to people who haven’t repented because people who haven’t repented continue to be a threat.

This is why we don’t consider a criminal’s level of moral responsibility during a trial and investigation. The judge and jury are there to determine if a person has done what they’re accused of. If they have, they determine the best way to neutralize the threat. The business of encouraging repentance is left to sentencing boards and parole officers.

Even though I’m able to articulate this issue like the dignified adult I pretend to be, it’s still challenging for me to act like it’s true.

It’s hard for me to accept this because I spent most of my childhood afraid of being bad. Through a combination of privilege, good sense, and circumstances, I managed to make it to adulthood before making a great moral trespass*. Adults around me lauded me as a very responsible and upright teenager. Almost all the boys’ parents wanted me dating their son.

In other words, I made it to adulthood without fucking up.

Around halfway through college, my winning streak ended, and I fucked up. It was going to happen eventually, although I didn’t appreciate that at the time.

But at that point, my identity was so entrenched in my status as ‘not-a-fuckup’ that I didn’t know how to handle it. I hadn’t fucked up before. How do people handle this?

Without getting into the details, my fuckup was so large that it took a solid year to disentangle myself from it. There were also a lot of other factors involved, making my moral fuckup fuel for a much larger fire. But now that fire has been put out. That time of my life is over. It’s time for me to make sense of what’s left.

So, how do people handle it when they’ve made morally terrible decisions? How do people handle it when others around them have done this? How should we handle it?

We repent. We allow others to repent. And if they don’t repent, we step out of their lives until they do.

Some people never will. We will have to lose them. And I’m learning that’s one of the tragedies of life.

*This isn’t to say my life had no challenges. But I responded to these challenges by making upright moral decisions — decisions I’m not sure I could replicate if faced with today.

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