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On Good and Good Men

January 16, 2015

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home;

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.


- W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

Photo courtesy of Ruben L. Oppenheimer

 

Wednesday, the 7th of January 2015, started off like any other day in Paris: dark, foggy, and cold.

 

The grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. [She] had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. […] In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

 

At 11:30 local time, a black Citroen C3 drove up to the Charlie Hebdo building in Rue Nicolas-Appert.

 

In a few minutes they saw a car some distance away on top of a hill, coming slowly as if the occupants were watching them. […] It was a big black battered

hearse-like automobile. There were three men in it.

 

Two masked gunmen, dressed in black and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles got out and approached the offices.

 

"What you got that gun for?" John Wesley asked. "Whatcha gonna do

with that gun?"

 

The men asked for the paper's editor Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb, by name before opening fire and killing the editor and his police bodyguard, Franck Brinsolaro. They also shot dead seven other journalists and a guest attending the meeting.

 

"Listen," she said, "You shouldn't call yourself The Misfit because I know you're a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell."

"Nome, I ain't a good man," The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, "but I ain't the worst in the world neither.”

 

There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence.

 

Witnesses said they heard the gunmen shouting "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad" and "God is Greatest" in Arabic ("Allahu Akbar") while calling out the names of the journalists.

- BBC News Europe, Charlie Hebdo Attack: Three Days of Terror

 

She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if

a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. […] "She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

- Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

 

Photo courtesy of Ruben L. Oppenheimer

 

When Flannery O’Connor wrote the short story that defined her writing career in 1953, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ the expression was already a popular phrase thanks to Eddie Green’s catchy 1918 hit song by the same name. Green’s good man was one who was faithful and nice to his woman. In O’Connor’s story, the grandmother believed that a good man ‘wouldn’t shoot a lady.’

 

The very first reference to man as ‘good’ was made by God Himself, a long time ago on the sixth day of the Book of Genesis. Back then, there was no description greater, or more whole, than good. These days, in our overcrowded vocabulary of awesomes, excellents, and amazings, ‘good’ no longer means anything. Good is undervalued. Good is oversimplified. Good is relative. Good is average, bordering on mediocre.

 

At no other time in history have we had more superlatives to choose from. At no other time have we had more laws, more organizational bodies and regulatory institutions, more awareness of individual liberties and appreciation of universal human rights. And at no other time in history has the law of the jungle more completely ruled. Green and O’Connor’s statements have never been truer: good men are hard to find.

 

This is not another article on the heinous attacks committed against Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week. Nor is it about the brutal killing of Yves Nawfal and Eliane Safatly in Lebanon last weekend.  Enough has been written about those victims, to which I can only add my heartbreak. There has been much anger, much condemnation, much talk of bad men, but this post is about the meaning, and the value, of a good one.

 

There are no pre-ordained villains in the real world. All men are good, or at least believe themselves to be. They are given or choose an ideology; they adhere to it and live by its principles. Their actions are guided by their beliefs, so how can they possibly be bad? If at times they must be violent, if at times they must harm, surely it is necessary in ‘fighting the good fight;’ there is a greater purpose. It is ‘others’ who do evil things out of malice and for no good reason. Others who are intolerant. Others who do not understand. Others who should be punished, educated and molded, converted and guided back to the ‘right’ path.

 

And just look at the mess these shallow, self-righteous ‘good’ men have made.

 

Good is not ‘nice.’ Good is not ‘polite.’ Even The Misfit in O’Connor’s story stopped to fix the damaged car and politely conversed with the grandmother before he shot her. Good is not ‘right’ either, nor is it ‘just.’ Good is placing a greater value on your opponent’s humanity than on his ideas. Good is turning the other cheek when your instincts are pushing you to shoot back. Good is being kind when the world around you is screaming for you to be angry. Good is finding grace and forgiveness in a broken Paris.

 

 

Good is the most overused, undervalued word in the English dictionary. Perhaps, like The Misfit said, it takes staring a gun in the face every day of your life to truly understand what it means.

 

For a good man nowadays is hard to find, a good man nowadays is hard to find.

 

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