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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

The Good Place

If you haven’t seen the television series referred to in the title of this post, I want to commend it to you for two reasons. There is little enough on commercial media that I find worth devoting much time to beyond some DIY and documentary programs, almost never attempts at comedy. For the most part TV comedy is simplistic fare and to be sure this series has its share of sophomoric humor but also genuinely nuanced moments that are worth waiting for. What I especially appreciate, though, is its willingness to explore contemporary views on what constitutes heaven and hell.

Without giving away three seasons of plot lines, let me just say that heaven and hell are depicted as bureaucratic conventions—the qualification for which are the ‘points’ one has accrued in life—or failed to--condemning those with insufficient scores to torture for all eternity. Neither God nor Satan actually appear—everything is handled by demons or angels—essentially mid-level management. Hell has its tortures—having to live forever in a house filled with sad clown pictures for example, and heaven, well it is full of very well-intentioned nice people who are frankly boring and form committees to consider anything that departs from their kindly but rigid rules of conduct.

This is lightweight stuff, but it does attempt to move beyond several thousand years of apocalyptic teaching, albeit with sardonic satire. The nature of heaven and hell has been explored endlessly over the ages by theologians and writers. Forgive me if I refrain from cataloguing these efforts. Most religions share a common agreement that our actions in this world have consequences, and the disposition of our selves in whatever life follows are determined by those actions for better or worse. Even those philosophies that do not subscribe to a western heaven/hell convention suggest that our purpose on this plane of existence is to perfect our being—to evolve beyond the limits of human emotion and thought and become united with the universe.

I am not going to weigh in but rather suggest a viewpoint that applies whether or not one sustains a belief in God, or life beyond what we humans experience. At the outset, let me stipulate what I believe we might all acknowledge, that our actions have consequences and that there is a quality we could call goodness and its counterpart, evil, that describe the arc of human behavior. To be clear, I want to distance these qualities from emotional judgements about good and bad that are largely conditional and self-determined.

So, what is goodness, or for that matter evil? Whether we believe in a heaven or hell, most of us are born with an innate understanding of these twins—simply put as actions that sustain us and those that threaten our existence. As sentient beings, our experiences as we interact with the world will refine that understanding and help form our adult views. Let me say definitively that I do not subscribe to the belief that we are born good or evil—or even predisposed to one or the other. We gravitate in one direction or the other as we experience the consequences of actions which affect us.

Does this mean that there are no genuinely good or evil people? In the sense I am describing it, yes, there are people who are capable of and act so as to cultivate goodness just as there are those who become capable of unspeakable evil. The one act so as to sustain themselves and others by behaving with compassion, charity, self-lessness and love. The others practice selfishness, ruthless disregard for others, and hatred derived from a deep sense of rejection, fear and need for control over the world that has so deeply wounded them.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle of this arc—not evil, and not entirely good, just human beings trying to make our way. Where does that leave heaven and hell? If I were writing the script, I would say that the good place is where we are surrounded by beings who accept and sustain us even as we do the same for them. The bad place is on the other side of an impenetrable window through which one observes complete acceptance and love but is unable to experience it—alone for eternity. The worst part is that those so consigned are there by their own hand. At any time they could cross over, if only they knew how to truly love.

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