Years ago, I read an article on the history of adoption in Canada. For decades, orphaned or abandoned children were informally “adopted” by farmers to be used as cheap labour (Anne of Green Gables was adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert for just this reason and caused great disappointment for not arriving as a boy). The abuses reported under this system lead to the reforms we have in place today. Sadly, in the farm adoption days those who managed to survive to adulthood weren’t granted any reward for their years of hard service, and without the benefit of the sound parenting necessary to success many of them led deeply troubled lives.
But not all the farm families, the article pointed out, were self-serving slave drivers. In one anecdote a farmer’s wife looked out the window while washing up and caught a farm hand trying to lure her adopted little girl into the barn, proffering a doll. The woman ran out and fired the man on the spot. The little girl, nurtured and well-taught, grew up to become a doctor’s wife.
No farm wife to save us from evil
Today we’re surrounded by evil forces—that is, the complex of actions and intentions intended to do harm—striving to lure us into a barn with some shiny new plaything, and we often find ourselves helplessly alone, no furious adopted mother to come to our rescue.
How else do you explain the present reality that avarice is no longer considered a sin but rather a virtue? That young people are groomed from ever earlier ages to see themselves and each other as sex objects? And that we still have the old moral hypocrisies of the past hanging around (and even picking up steam at times), for example the renouncing of personal responsibility through blind obedience to tyrants, or the eye-for-an-eye justice model.
In many ways our society has become more ethically sophisticated, but in many ways we’ve declined in moral fortitude. Even the words “moral fortitude” sound so hokey and old-fashioned that they arrive with a hint of embarrassment. With postmodern relativism we’ve grown beyond an objective moral code and all its baggage, right?
Not exactly. Relativism never did quite win a victory over traditional morality, perhaps because of a simple irony: claiming that no one has the right to morally judge another because morality is subjective is, well, a moral judgment. And it doesn’t help that those who support this way of thinking are often the finger-waggingest folks in town, snorting and sneering at anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the new and progressive moral agenda.
Marvelous spiritual beings
Our first encounters with relativism (the belief that there is no objective moral code and that we each choose what’s right and wrong for ourselves) enticed us to minimise the value of goodness by seeing it as circumscribed by ourselves. But this was only because we still had no idea what marvelous spiritual beings we are and how deeply we’re connected to mysteries much bigger than we are.
I hesitate to call for a new morality, as this is already a movement, one which doesn’t seem to have moved far past the magical thinking and blind obedience of the old morality.
What I’d like to see take off is a movement for a new goodness, one that cherishes and preserves the most excellent moral ideals of the past while taking into consideration the deep lessons we humans have learned on our long blundering journey, individually and in community.
The lecherous farm hand
Here are just a few ways in which evil tries to tempt us into the barn of moral destruction:
- Persuading us to reject the moral precepts of the past in their entirety, without examining them for the value they may still hold for us
- Persuading us to accept strict moral standards wholly on the orders of an external authority
- Making us reject new moral ideas because they don’t feel familiar or safe
- Getting us away from our “inner farm wife,” that vigilant alertness that keeps us on guard against harmful forces
- Keeping us in the dark about our personal weaknesses
- Keeping us in the dark about our personal wondrousness
Follow the Good Path
The way to begin the path to goodness is simple: maintain a daily spiritual practice with a goal to improve your virtue and make you a better person. This doesn’t have to be according to any established religion, and I’ve come to doubt that rigid adherence to any one religion has any lasting moral value in itself.
Rather you should strive to get to know your true self and your higher power however you envision them. If you don’t believe in the idea of the true self or a higher power, simply spend some time in reflection, perhaps communing with nature or the fine arts or simply journaling. Any artistic activity is a spiritual practice, as is any striving for good relationship.
If enough of us did this we might see our profound collective stupidity diminish a little, resulting in a safer, happier world for everyone and fewer social sins like forcing children to serve as unpaid labourers.
This kind of thing can’t effectively be imposed from without, so it has to start with us.