Bad People or Bad Choices?

08c157706766b6c658696b9fb7a185b4In my youth, parents, principals, teachers, den mothers, filmstrips, and preachers taught that every action was a reflection of your character.

In fact, it probably went deeper than that: your very thoughts needed to remain pure, ideally never straying from avenues of indoctrination, but at the very worst, if you found yourself hankering to do bad, tempted to wander across the tracks to the dark side of town, that thought had to be doused, snuffed, strangled, eliminated.

Reputation was a commodity of immeasurable worth, more precious that bullion. One misstep could obliterate a lifetime of probity, sullying forever your once good name and by association tarring your otherwise innocent family with the pitch of ignominy.

The public elementary school I attended that taught these lessons blithely ignored the separation of church and state. We prayed to Jesus every morning, were served fish sticks in the cafeteria every Friday. However, the teachers weren’t so much saying that your eternal life was on the line, but that bad habits metastasize like cancers, and the progression downward could be precipitous, a lie begetting a theft, a theft begetting a life of crime, and the next thing you know, you’re wearing stripes in Sing Sing, or in my case, at the Columbia Correctional Institute.

Well, as Mr. Dylan predicted, the times have changed.

Half a century later, at the Episcopal School where I teach, we don’t condemn students’ misdeeds as character flaws but refer to them as “bad choices.” Just because you cheat on a test and get caught doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll cheat one day on your taxes. Impulsiveness is no longer the prompting of Satan but, more plausibly, the product of pubescent chemical imbalances, and even premeditated malfeasance can be attributed to immature brains still in the process of growing, a process that science now claims is not completed for most people until the age of 25.

east-of-eden-julie-harris-james-dean-1955Although I disapprove of the cliché the phrase “making bad choices” has become, I do think it wise not to declare someone ultimately a bad person for making even a serious moral mistake. If someone thinks he’s inherently bad, like Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s film of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, he might conclude that fighting his immoral inclinations is a lost cause and use his self-assessment as an excuse to do whatever the hell he wants.

Poor Cal had adopted the persona of a self-romanticizing narcissist, a very bad choice indeed.

God, Why Did You Let So Much Shit Go Down on Me Today?

bieber and god

Justin: God, can I ask You a question?

God: I don’t know.  Can you?

Justin: I mean, May I ask you a question?

God: Shoot.

Justin: Promise You won’t get mad.

God:  Son, have you read Job 38, 1-41?  Genesis Chapters 9-6?  Genesis 19?

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Justin:  [lying]:  Yeah, sure.

God: I promise not to get any angrier than I did back then.

Justin: Why did You let so much shit go down on me this week?

God: What do u mean?

Justin, Well, I got popped for egging my neighbor’s house.

God: Yes?

Justin: Which led to my bro, Lil Za, getting busted for coke.

God: Okay?

Justin: Then I got pulled over for drag racing doing 60 in a 35 zone.  Like, I had my dad and a couple of Escalades blocking traffic so nobody would get hurt.  Seems real unfair.

God: Huummm.

Justin: And then for the mug shot, the pigs wouldn’t let me put on no make-up or put on my shades, and a couple of zits show up for all the world to see.

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God: And?

Justin: And on top of it all off, when I got to the hotel, there were only about 30 chicks camped out there.  Nothing’s gone right this week! Why did You do that?

God: Let me see.  Well, first, I let Satan tempt you into egging the house to let the world know just what a pussy you are so tweens will still identify with you and buy your records.

Justin (humbled): OH!

God: I had Lil Za, like an idiot, leave the blow out in plain sight so you could bask in big boy trouble without your actually getting into serious legal trouble. So you’re still appealing to tweens and the older crowd.

Justin: (17 watt light bulb illuminating above his head): Oh.

God: Hey, look.  I could have had u drag-racing out in Salinas like I did your previous incarnation James Dean, but I had u in the streets of Miami where it’s virtually impossible accelerate fast enough to receive fatal injuries.  So now you’re copping pre-humous press, unlike JD, whose posthumous academy award nomination didn’t do him personally a whole lotta good. Look, compare his Porsche with your Lamborghini.

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Justin (quizzical): Okay.

God: Hey, sorry about the zit, but u ain’t the only peep I’m taking care of.  Some kid’s parents were praying that he make a free throw when your arrest was going down.

Justin (softly): I see, God.

God: Oh, and those chicks.  I kept the numbers down so you could sleep off your hangover without a muffled roar going down outside your window.

Justin: I’m Sorry, God.

God: Don’t be sorry, just learn to Trust Me…. in All things , the Good & the bad.

Justin: I will trust You.

God: And don’t doubt that My plan for your day is Always Better than your plan.

Justin: I won’t God. And let me just tell you God, Thank You for Everything this week.

God: You’re welcome, child. It was just another day being your God, and I Love looking after My Wealthy American Children . . .

matching assholes