I grew up on a steady diet of feel-good fantasy novels: noble tales about good folks who could be counted on to do the right thing, and bad guys that could be counted on to do the worst thing. I knew who would prevail, and who would fall.
As a kid I found this predictability boring and formulaic after the first three or four novels. It would be decades before I realized that many works of genre fiction – from fantasy novels to crime and mystery thrillers – were popular because by the time one reached adulthood, you already knew that the world was messy and complicated; that good folks don’t always win; that good people coming out on top is far less common than we’d like. Formulaic stories in which good prevailed were and are a soothing balm. During one of the most depressed periods of my life, after watching the worst people win the highest office in my country, I remember binge reading all of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mystery books.
As a child I believed goodness was the default state, that everyone learned to feel the guilt I did when I said or did something harmful to others, that everyone tried to be a better person because good people were more loved than bad people. Growing older and moving into puberty and planning ahead for the life of a grownup, my mother cautioned me to be selfish, to look after myself first, to avoid entanglements with men who would sideline my career or send me spiraling off track. I understood that impulse, and I embraced the selfishness that I had been told was bad when I was younger; clearly, as a teen, being good meant I would be taken advantage of. Everyone I met needed to be regarded with suspicion. I should form no close attachments.
Selfishness worked out for me for a while. I was able to get out of a bad relationship and focus first on myself and what I wanted. I bought a one-way ticket to Alaska. I spent nearly a decade traveling around the world and figuring out what kind of person I really was.
This selfishness was all fine and well until I almost died. Nearly dying has a profound effect on all of those who have come up against it, and I was no exception. The only reason I survived is due to the work of dozens of people who acted to save my life, and I remain alive because of the thousands more who make, deliver, and prescribe the drugs I now need to keep me alive.
We are none of us an island. Thinking one is a solitary badass generally means ending up starving to death in the wilderness, alone.
Being selfish was indeed incredibly easy. But also lonely. And disingenuous. When you stare down the barrel of mortality you start to wonder what the point is in being bad and alone and angry and terrified all the time, leaving nothing but ruin behind you. What meaning is there in that?
What I’ve learned over the last decade-plus is that trying to be a good, empathetic human who does the right thing takes far more work and courage than embracing your worst impulses. Goodness is the harder path, not the default one. Traveling the world, challenging myself, learning about myself…. It turns out that once I learned who I was and what I was capable of, I became strong enough to be kind.
We are all born selfish, needy creatures, demanding others see to our comfort and care, because that’s how we survive. It’s all we know. As we age, we begin (most of us) to learn empathy. That those outside of us hurt and feel things, too. Most of us begin to understand that getting what we want can be easier when one is nice about it. This niceness is learned, not only through experience, but from stories, from modeling our behavior on those around us. Certainly, we are more likely to be bullies when we see bullies in charge, when we learn that the rod and the stick contain power. Teaching children to be nice and kind is a vital part of early childhood learning, but those early lessons can be ground down over time when one sees the bad guys winning over and over again.
This is why we tell so many stories about the good folks winning, to balance out some of the everyday horror we encounter in a world that is fundamentally unfair. Dictators take power. People vote happily for bad men. It happens all the time.
None of us is perfectly good of course. Most of us are simply honest cowards, doing the right thing because the wrong one would hurt us more.
In the ’90s I fell in love with grimdark fantasies, bleak stories about how humans are all mean and selfish, driven by lust and greed and violence, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Humans were nasty and brutish. We would always do the most selfish thing. It is this view of humanity that encourages vindictive bullies, the “I have to get mine before you get me” mentality that results in endless war and conflict.
However, just as we are not all born good, we aren’t all born assholes, either.
Human beings have survived this long because we are social creatures. We care for each other. Make pacts and partnerships. Compromise, support each other. Our bleakest moments are when we resort to the worst in ourselves. Those bleak moments aren’t why we’re here. We have survived in spite of them, not because of them.
What many of those who prepare for the apocalypse fail to realize as they stock up on canned goods imported from around the globe is that their zombie-fighting fantasies will not result in them being a hero for the ages, but more likely end in them dying in a ditch somewhere, suffering from gangrene and pneumonia.
We live longer, fuller lives when we live them together.
And to live and work together requires kindness, empathy, and the courage to admit when you are wrong and need help. These are not weakness. These are survival strategies. The one thing we all share – the good guys and the bad – is that we will all eventually die. How we choose to spend the time between now and then is how we define ourselves. It’s how we show who we really are.
I used to think that moral complexity made for better stories, and there is some truth in that, especially for certain types of characters who are just learning how to make the tough calls between good and evil. However, with age and practice, it’s become easier for me to know what the right thing is, and when to respond with empathy and compassion, and when to suffer no shit from the bad guy.
It has become easier because I’ve have to make these choices again and again, and I learned, over time, when I chose wrong. I learned from my mistakes. I strived to do better. To achieve this, I must actively practice it.
I must actively choose goodness every day.
Goodness, like democracy (to paraphrase John Lewis) is not a state, but an act, one we must perform again and again.
Being the good person isn’t easy. It’s the toughest choice you will ever make, and strive to keep making in the entirely of your time here on this earth.
Make the tougher choice.
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Stars are Legion and the award-winning essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, Locus Award, BFA Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, The Village Voice, and Entertainment Weekly. She posts regularly at KameronHurley.com.
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This article and more like it in the December 2020 issue of Locus.
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