Yesterday, I was told a piece of good news, about a sudden and unexpected family reconciliation. It stayed with me all day. Later, I watched the early evening news and then an excellent film, The Lady in the Van – Maggi Smith at her best.
The film was about goodness, as was my friend’s story. Both were good news in the fullest sense. They held, or contained, the events of the day. They held them together.
My friend’s story was a quiet interruption of the treadmill rhythm of world events, the continual downward thrust of life. The same is true of the story about the man who took in the van lady, in the film – and also in real life. Both are an interruption of the normal course of events. In each of these situations something good is working into the less good aspects of human nature, and thus of life as we know it.
This good must be energised by something or someone, in order for it to work. Something must enliven it, like the goodness of the created world, whatever scientists may say about the universe creating itself out of nothing. Goodness is not a created thing. It simply is. It works in the immediacy of the moment.
Something that works must have a purpose. Goodness is worked as love, which is its purpose. This is not to say that it has demonstrable reasons for working, especially in situations where goodness seems unwarranted and therefore incomprehensible to most of us. The neighbours in the film, all good people in their way, did not know how to respond to unwarranted goodness, goodness which goes beyond ‘doing the right thing’.
Goodness proceeds from something, or someone, greater than the person who is doing good to someone else. It effects a transformation. A single good act done without duplicity, or kind word spoken sincerely, effects permanent change, even if its permanence seems hard to believe in at times. Its effect does not even depend on another person’s willingness to receive it. Neither does it wait on gratitude. It is unconditional. Goodness, or caring, as Alan Bennet tells the social worker, is about dirt, to put it politely. Or, as seems the case with the family I was told about, something which comes under the heading of revelation, a moment of truth or understanding about the way things really are.
This suggests that goodness derives from some form of original truth. Something is given which enables someone to recognise that another person or situation is in need of unalloyed goodness. Recognising this need can take a person unawares. It effects change in the most cynical mindset. Perhaps goodness, and the change it effects in both giver and receiver, has to do with prevenient grace, the goodness lying dormant in people, the God-shaped space in their inner being.
Perhaps the good person understands at depth the reality of that grace, or re-creative goodness, which also lies waiting in the mind or heart of the suffering or angry person. They sense that it is there, waiting to be touched into life and transformed by the author of all goodness, through whatever they are about to do or say to that person.
At the same time, the purpose of any good act or word can also be obscured by the sometimes pre-conceived view of the person saying it. Good people are not always likeable – think of the whisky priest in Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory. Good people seldom think of themselves as good, especially when being good takes them way over their tolerance threshold for ‘doing the right thing’.