Good and bad

In childhood, we develop a keen sense of other people’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’.  Photo from The Honest Company on Unsplash

Imagine if good and bad didn’t exist.

Imagine if both good and bad were figments of your imagination.


The concepts of good and bad are very useful to a parent trying to exercise control over you.  The words are a shortcut, a way of avoiding explanation.  ‘Good boy; good girl’ you might be told when you do something your parents want you to do.  ‘Bad girl; bad boy,’ you might be told, when you do something not on the list of approved actions.

The description ‘bad’ was perhaps accompanied by a withdrawal of goodwill.  This coldness made you feel weird.  When you grew up, the weird feeling still resulted from any perceived withdrawal of goodwill.  You felt guilty, and sought out ways to ingratiate yourself with others, to get ‘out of their bad books’ and ‘into their good books’.

In this way, your childhood may have trained you to be sensitive to your position on some imagined points system of good and bad.

If you relied on receiving constant ‘good’ points from your parents, and they are absent in adulthood, then you may feel constantly ‘wrong’, as though you have failed to please an imaginary judge.


Now you are grown up, you can make your own decisions about what is good and what is bad.  The trouble is, the definitions you grew up with may have taken hold, and be hard to shake.  So you have two systems of good and bad, the one you grew up with, and the one you make up for yourself.

Self-created value systems are a lot harder to stick with than socially supported value systems.  This is why so many children leave home to gain their independence.  All they know at the time, is that their parents’ value system doesn’t fit them any more.  They feel controlled and alien.  But then comes the challenging task of developing a competing value system.  It may seem to stick, but then fall back, in the face of conflict with society or others.

Adulthood can be a lonely, isolated time.  Outside the protection of our parents’ value systems, we have to try to survive.  We make it up as we go along.  Sometimes we look for, and adopt, alternative value systems that are ready-made.  In this way, some adults will enlist into authority systems with a similar felt strength to their parents.  Perhaps a controlling partner.  Perhaps a socially conformative religion or group.


If you were enlightened, what would be different about your view of good and bad?

For a start, you would not feel so dependent on others to give you your sense of ‘rightness’.  As you develop, you realise, perhaps, that you have been a pawn in everyone else’s game.  Everyone else has, essentially, been trying to guilt you into behaving their way.  They have been smiling at you when you do what they want; and frowning at you when you do not do what they want.  This is neither healthy for them, nor healthy for you.

This, I think, is why many people graduate from an early relationship with an over-controlling partner, into later relationships that have more mutual freedom.  There is less need to kowtow to other people’s imposing social signals.

Secondly, you would not feel so desperate to find a surefire value system that sorted the whole world out.  You would no longer need to trawl the world looking for the one authority to which you could submit, whether it is a romantic attachment, a religious authority, a rule book to end all rule books.  You would be content to be an adventurer, a traveller, always learning, but without the arrogance that narrows the mind.


All this is another way of describing a path to compassion and wisdom.

While you were dependent on others for your sense of rightness, you could not listen properly to their story.  You were too busy trying to survive yourself.  Now you are not dependent on others to feel good, you can afford to listen to others, all others, with respect and care.  This is compassion.

While you were dependent on others for a strong value system, you could not properly see their faults.  You were too busy trying to idealise, and then idolise, ‘the right thing’.  Now you are not so desperate to find the perfect value system, you can afford to let truth emerge from every situation with constant and flexible awareness.  This is wisdom.