I’m back to the supernatural world of Nate Temple, and glad to be here with Silver Tongue, the fourth book in Shayne Silvers’ series. The growing complexity of the series is gratifying and this book tackles some of the most complex issues of all: early in the novel someone asks Nate, “What does being a good man mean to you?” Nate replies, “It’s becoming more unclear as the years go by.” This is deep truth—truth in fantasy.
As all outstanding fantasy does, Silver Tongue reflects reality, together with a big dose of analytical exploration. What does it mean to be a good man or a good woman? The question brought me up short.
Most of us think ourselves to be “good” people, at least deep down. I doubt my readers are comprised of murderers and rapists, kidnappers or professional thieves. So, we can take that kind of black and white definition off the table (this is not to say that those who commit serious crimes cannot be redeemed, but that is a topic for another post). Less clear is whether our essential goodness is irreparably stained by the more mundane transgressions: white lies; cheating in its various incarnations; and less than grand thefts—of the physical and intellectual variety. Most of us are not wholly innocent of such crimes, but do transgressions like these exclude us from the panoply of goodness? I don’t believe so – and if that is the case, then what constitutes goodness in humanity? And what bars us from its ranks?
I’m with Nate in believing that the definition of goodness is becoming less clear as the years pass. When I was younger, being ‘good’ meant working hard, being loyal, practicing kindness and behaving generously. All of those attributes are certainly “good,” of course. The issues arise when one of those objectives conflicts with one or more of the others.
What does it mean to be good when the legitimate demands of work preclude being kind or generous? We can’t give away what we haven’t got, and work-life balance is highly skewed for so many of us on the hamster wheel of life. What does being a good person mean to us when we have to choose between spending time with our kids or our friends? Our spouse or our parents? Our family or our community? If we’re trying to be good, if that is a value for us, where are the guideposts that tell us which sacrifices are the right ones (our soul for a loved one’s life, for example), or which choices are good, better and best?
I think, as Nate implies, that as we get older and have some life experience under our belts, what it means to be good changes; as we age, things grow more complicated. And while love songs and sitcoms may lead us to the conclusion that good choices have neon signs to identify them, often the choice that would support our claims to goodness can only be found in the rearview mirror. In the moment, when we make the daily choices that constitute our lives and label us as “good” or “bad,” there is much less clarity.
Fear, frustration, disappointment and impatience can begin to cloud our judgment about what is good. When we can no longer call ourselves young, we may feel that we’ve been there, done that, and already given away the t-shirt, along with other remnants of a past no longer relevant to the future. When we think we know the situation or circumstances, or our fear projects onto the future events based on the past, we may make less than good choices. If we close down communication with someone we love because we’ve been hurt previously and that baggage informs our current relationship, that cannot be a choice for good, although we believe it to be so. If we dismiss a friend in need because they’ve been where they are before and we’re all out of fucks to give, we may make bad choices in the name of doing ourselves good.
The question of goodness is complicated. And I believe it is relative. Yes, there are probably some absolute truths out there, but a major milestone marking the passage of years is that we come to realize that we have no way of seeing the big picture in many instances, and we are in no position to judge. Not even ourselves. Although most of us do. And there is very little mercy to be found in the depths of our own minds, particularly when we have turned our attention to our own actions.
So where do we stand on the question of what it means to be a good person? Well, intentions are important, although not definitive. Outcomes are relevant, although not categorical. A sincere effort to do the best we can with the information we have, trying first to do no harm and second to do some good is probably a decent place to start, but it might not be where we end up. In the final analysis, I recommend reading Silver Tongue and meeting me in the comments section for a longer discussion. I’m good with that.