Sometimes a sequence of events conspires to make you truly wonder at the metaphysical nature of the cosmos. Usually, it is a cascade of events that combine to create chaos, loss and pain. Such is the default of our decaying cosmic home, the universe. Whether you like it or not, the Second Law of Thermodynamics spells trouble for the status quo as long as there is a thing we call time.
So how do we explain the opposite? A sequence of events so inexplicably beneficial, it creates an entirely new context for one’s existence. Depending on our philosophical outlook we might attribute it to chance, fate, God or some other directing agency that reverses the downward trend in our favour. Whatever the case, it is noteworthy and rings through our inner being in a way that simple cause/effect doesn’t.
It’s because it is so unusual. We’re used to our lives being a series of predictable and sometimes less predictable outcomes based on our environment and decisions. And yet our understanding is skewed by an innate innocence that continues to believe that ‘bad things’ are randomly occurring events in the cosmos that happen blindly, whereas ‘good things’ are based on some kind of cosmic reward system.
I’ve recently been enjoying the Netflix series The Good Place. It’s a marvellous and witty philosophical comedy about four disparate characters who find themselves in a benign afterlife, but one is an unwitting impostor. The entire premise of the show is that everyone’s behaviour and motives are being monitored on Earth and points are assigned according to the wider effects and altruism of their actions. (On the grand scale of things, ending slavery is the top scoring positive, while genocide rests at the opposite end of the scale!)
A graphic from The Good Place illustrating some scoring examples
The show invokes various philosophers and theories of existence but ultimately, it shows the relative value we place on good behaviour. A cursory scan of your average social media feed will throw up a cornucopia of video links from all over the world, and at least 50% will comprise some form of heartwarming animal rescue, selfless morality story or inspiring historical biography in a 90-second subtitled clip with appropriate music.
[Of course, much of the rest will be outraged and usually misplaced anger at some perfectly normal facet of modern urban existence, astonishing transportation-related accidents or near-misses, mobs of youths attacking a Syrian refugee or clips from long-departed TV shows that nevertheless hold ‘classic’ status (probably that clip of DelBoy falling through the bar or maybe some high-pitched comedian making the Live at the Apollo audience scream with laughter – hilarious!) but that’s Facebook for you.]
But we keep coming back to those inspirational stories and selfless acts of charity. There’s something only the most bitter and jaded people can’t feel about witnessing good things. I believe as humans we are hardwired to respond to goodness or kindness, which is why selfishness and greed do so much damage to the mental health of the nation as a whole. If an entire roomful of people is focused and positive, even if you’re not connected to it you still feel an innate happiness – like when a wedding party crashes your local pub. When a public figure announces they will donate the entirety of their fee/earnings/prize money to a deserving charity, there is an immediate swell of respect, even if they are not a particularly ‘nice’ person.
I recently had a turnaround in my life of epic proportions. I went from a no-hoper rapidly going broke to well-paid and feted new talent overnight. It was a good thing. It took away a shedload of stress and caused me to think differently. I’d been reclusive, stressed and angry. Suddenly I was outward-looking, optimistic and sociable.
It occurred to me that I could have chosen to be like that all along, but circumstances made me think differently.
It occurs to me now that people respond to positive influences and events in their lives out of all proportion to their actual effects, whether they are directly affected or not. The same is true for negatives, but for some reason, positive events seem to have a synergic effect on humanity which exponentially affects people’s daily lives. Doing good does us good.
I’m at risk of sounding like one of those super-positive motivational speakers (who I can’t stand, of course). Bad things happen, and much of our lives are spent trying to avoid them or trying to deal with them. I don’t think anyone deserves to be rich or poor, healthy or sick, or happy or sad. Much of our misery or happiness hinges on the decisions we make from day to day, and over time we might find ourselves far removed from our ideal place as our choices have moved us that way by degrees. On the other hand, we might be doing our best when some massive train wreck occurs beyond our control that can completely upset and destabilise our lives to such an extent that we are flailing to get a grip on anything.
But good things happen too. We’d be completely derelict if we didn’t recognise them for what they are and grab the opportunity with both hands. Perhaps we get so used to processing bad things out of our lives, we don’t recognise the good things and unconsciously process them out of our lives as well.
It’s Christmas. A good thing. Let’s weave some of that goodness into our lives and start spreading the warmth. It’s not all bad.