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Understanding Ourselves:Are We Good Or Bad?

The Journey Inward


Last updated 2/12/2020 at 4:37pm

Are we not apt to judge people and ourselves as either good or bad or at the least a mixture of both?

Jesus didn’t. Jesus made a profound psychological point about people in the parable of the good Samaritan. He suggested that we are not necessarily bad like the robbers or automatically good like the Samaritan. And those who passed by were chided for putting ritual above compassion.

Moving away from a focus on behavior, Jesus said in John 15:15 we are relational.

“I have called you friends,” he said.

When we are in a relationship, there exists the possibility that our behavior is seen as an underlying need rather than judged as good or bad.

The following narrative illustrates how this perspective was healing for a young boy.

Mona Delahooke, who works with children, tells the story of 5-year-old Colwyn. She wrote about him in the professional journal “Psychotherapy Networker.”

When he first came to see Delahooke he was suffering from stomachaches, and his pediatrician suspected his symptoms stemmed from anxiety. He had just moved from the freewheeling environment of pre-school to the more structured kindergarten setting where he was asked to sit and pay attention.

He would move about, pull out toys and generally disrupt the class. His teacher, “organized and energetic,” initiated a behavior management approach whereby she affixed green, yellow and red dots to each child’s name and placed these on a blackboard. If a child got mostly green dots, the reward would be a special treat such as cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles.

Colwyn wanted the special prizes as much as his classmates did, but inevitably as the day started, he would behave in such a way that he would get yellow dots. And by days end his disruptive behavior earned him red dots.

The teacher’s method caused him additional stress and within weeks he was crying and screaming in class.

Of course, the teacher was well-intentioned and at her wit’s end to bring order into the class and also calm Colwyn.

Delahooke comments: “What we fail to recognize is that emotional and behavioral control is a developmental process, and many vulnerable children and teens require years to develop that ability. Contrary to current practices the way to build it is by creating zones of relational safety around the child, not by offering rewards, consequences and punishments.”

As Delahooke worked with Colwyn’s teacher and parents, she helped them to see that rather than punishments or rewards, they could create a zone of safety by looking for cues about his emotional state.

Colwyn was feeling overwhelmed by the rewards system. He needed an approach that did not focus on behavior as good or bad but as an expression of what was happening inside him. In this way he was able to calm his over aroused nervous system.

His exasperated but caring teacher found this approach helpful.

The story about Colwyn illustrates the importance of relationship. We are neither good nor bad. Rather Jesus noted that when we are in the company of the “two or three gathered” in his name we can understand our behavior as avenues for sharing. We search for relational “zones of safety.”

Of course, our culture presses us from all sides to base our worth on acceptable behavior. True, we are citizens who should respect each other’s rights. But Marcus Borg, a religion professor, noted our pursuit of appearance, affluence and achievement as cultural norms. This emphasis takes on the cast of reward and punishment. We either appear right, or we don’t. We have achieved enough, or we haven’t. We are financially secure, or we aren’t.

Jesus said: “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (See Matthew 11:28-30). Come into relation with God (our spiritual center) and each other, not as a requirement (“my yoke is easy”) but as a possibility.

(Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and clergyperson living in Brevard.)


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