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Marginal Notes

The Search for Faith and Goodness

"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against others; for you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in." Matthew 23:13

As I was working on this article, news came of Russia's deliberate bombing of a train station full of refugees, mostly women and children, trying to escape the shelling in eastern Ukraine. That vile act added some urgency to the topic I was writing about -- the problem that evil is often easier to write than goodness.

Evil people make the deliberate decision to be bad and often take delight in doing harm. Goodness is less self-conscious, almost by definition. A lot of good people never think of themselves as good -- they don't let their left hand know what their right hand is doing. In fact, good people are often good because they have doubts or fears and do the right thing in spite of them. Evil is simple. Good is complex. Complex is harder to write.

(Incidentally, I'm pulling metaphors from the Christian tradition because that's what I'm most familiar with. I realize these truths exist in most other traditions, as well.)

What makes it even harder is that, to write goodness effectively, you have to be a good person yourself -- to face your own doubts or fears and yet have the internal drive to do the generous, self-sacrificing, loving thing. A lot of more ordinary writers, faced with writing good people, fall back on a less challenging alternative. Writing about faith.

While working on a recent client's memoir, I noticed something odd. When he was writing about his psychological struggles or talking about a tough childhood, he was moving and personal. When he switched to talking about his beliefs and practices, suddenly he was all shallow platitudes. To be fair, his faith may have been as real as the rest of his life, but that's not how it came across. Ideally, faith and goodness should be related. Sadly, that's not always the case. And religious practice offers writers a ready-made language to signal goodness without exploring it.

For most people, beliefs are shaped and supported by an often tight-knit faith community. Like any other relatively closed group, these communities tend to develop their own shorthand for talking about complex, familiar concepts. For those who simply want to create a sense of goodness on the cheap, it's far too easy to turn to these virtue signals.

The problem is, for someone outside the in crowd, the shorthand usually comes across as shallow and meaningless. It can actually cheapen the whole idea of faith for outsiders -- see the Matthew quote at the head of the article. And it does nothing to convey actual goodness.

So whether you're writing about your own beliefs or a character's, pull back a bit and ask yourself how much of the language you're using is only heard among other believers. If the answer is “most of it,” focus instead on your actual experiences, what they feel like and how they affect you. If you stay aware of your own experience as you write, then you can probably pull your writing away from empty professions of faith and move toward the authentic faith that engenders goodness.

It wouldn't hurt to ask a skeptic to read the passages about faith and give you some feedback. Remember, you're not just writing for people who agree with you. You're not even writing to convince people who disagree with you. You're conveying your experiences, either in a memoir or through your characters. Even if skeptics remain unconvinced, if you're writing in clear, authentic terms, they will at least empathize. And readers who do agree will appreciate a fresh take on your shared faith.

I've written before about how writing can make you a better person -- by forcing you to understand other people, to become more aware of the world around you. Writing well about goodness is another way to grow. It compels you to face your own beliefs and ethics without hiding behind cant or lazy assumptions. It makes you more aware of what it means to be a moral force in the world.

It's not easy, and it shouldn't be. But a world in which women and children are bombed just for seeking safety is one that could use all the moral forces it can get.