Omar, from HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire, once demurred “a man gotta have a code” while explaining his prohibition against killing anyone who is not in “the game.” Although Omar’s complex moral framework is not exactly a model, it is commendable for the character to draw lines and set boundaries while operating in, at best what most people would consider, morally ambiguous situations. While many individuals do not have to navigate the same currents as the ruthless yet honorable Omar, they still face moral questions and obstacles in their everyday life. Even in these less complex situations we all struggle to make the right choices, to find the right path, and to sacrifice for others. A code to live by is something we all need, that we all yearn for when faced with the difficult decisions that accompany our awesome and frustrating existence. Like Omar (and countless others, I just like Omar the best), we adhere to some framework, heuristic, or an inner compass that helps us simplify and negotiate the frequent moral choices we must make.
For many people, religion sets the foundation of their moral code. Others build their codes around secular philosophy. Some receive moral inspiration from a parent, sibling, friend, or mentor. Building/deciphering your moral code is a personal journey about weighting what is and is not important to you. It is a quest to understand life and figure out where you fit in the world. There is no end to this quest, and some days, especially after a bad break-up or a terrible round of golf (#blessed), you will feel like you are starting from scratch. My never-ending story was greatly influenced by two writers – David Mitchell and Flannery O’Connor and two stories – Cloud Atlas and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. These are two very different writers, two very different stories that I read at two very disparate points of my life.
At the not so ripe age of sixteen, I sat in English class while Ms. O’Connor’s seminal short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” was read aloud. For those of you who have not read the story (read it now!) it is a tale (SPOILER ALERT, if it is possible to spoil a 60 year old short story) of a family on a vacation that ultimately ends with them being murdered by an escaped felon known as “The Misfit.” The acclaimed work tussles with what makes someone “good” and how we perceive “goodness” in others. At first I was struck by the sheer force of the randomness and coldness of the violence that concludes the story. In a matter of a couple pages a selfish grandmother and her bickering family face the horrors of hours alone in a car, a motor vehicle accident, and an inconsistently nihilistic and consistently homicidal criminal. A u-turn is not only the vehicular maneuver that the family should have executed in an effort to stay not dead, but also what happens to a story that begins with the humorous conversational pitter-patter of a dysfunctional family, but ends with the execution of two ‘ladies,’ two children, a man, a baby, and possibly a cat (It’s unclear whether the cat makes it out alive or not). Ms. O’Connor heaps her story full of foreshadowing, but when you are sixteen and half asleep, helpful literary mechanisms are of little importance.
The short story’s shockingly bloody end ignited my curiosity about the deeper meaning imbedded in Ms. O’ Connor’s work. As we peeled away the layers of the story in class, looking at the author’s view of grace and goodness, an overall picture of her take on humanity began to unfurl. This view is best highlighted by The Misfit’s final observation of the grandmother who forgives him right before she meets her end:
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
People think they are good and most strive to be good, but few (if any) are able to be good all the time. As a species, we are imperfect and lack the capacity, outside of small moments of illumination, to be truly good. The murderous misfit states that the grandmother would need the constant threat of death, rather than just one life altering threat to make her emanate the goodness that she did in her final moments. No epiphany is going to change the fact that we are still humans and that our lesser selves are the most frequently accessed and utilized.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” has stuck with me all these years not only because the shock and awe of the story or the masterful writing, but because it has helped me define/decipher my own moral code and enlightened an understanding of a critical part of the process of utilizing one’s morality. If as Ms. O’Connor alludes, that humans may only find glimpses of goodness in fleeting moments, then a “good” life, a moral life should be one that maximizes and cherishes those moments. Further, if the good of an individual is displayed only in short moments where people are attempting to rise above their baser selves then one’s moral code is an ever challenged framework. Every one of these moments begins with a choice to be: angry or forgiving in the face of death, spiteful or accepting when something you don’t like happens, or to be arrogant or kind when life has bestowed on you a great gift. To me Ms. O’Connor’s story frames morality as an almost ad hoc framework that you must call upon when faced with a dilemma. It shows the fleeting nature of the moments we get to be good and that those moments should not be taken for granted, but used to be good, if only for a minute in a life full of hours, days, and years.
So between my introduction to Ms. O’Connor’s work and the tale of my next literary inspired moral epiphany, much transpired. I grew a lot older, a little wiser, and more aware of the impact that literature can have on an individual’s way of seeing and interacting with the world. At the age of 28, I picked up a copy of David Mitchell’s critically acclaimed novel Cloud Atlas. The novel is a web of six nested stories that leap in time from the 1800’s to the distant future and in genre from romance to science fiction. The stories focus on the Darwinian battle of the strong (violent) against the weak (less violent). Through these stories Mr. Mitchell focuses on and criticizes that part of human nature that inspires us to dominate those we perceive to be weak or lesser. Eventually, this predatory part of our nature brings about the fall of civilization and a return to a period that is akin to a prehistoric time. Cloud Atlas is also a novel about hope, and for the weak or persecuted it is derived from banding together and helping one another. In many of the stories aid comes from individuals who belong to the class of oppressors, but break with those like them to do what is “right.” Simply put, it is a story about the dark parts of human nature, finding one’s goodness through coming together, and breaking away from one’s own prejudice to see all people as members of the same group – humans.
Reading this book and internalizing its message of “oneness” and the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak made me realize this is a lesson I have been taught by Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Professor Xavier (X-Men), and countless others who have forgone the trappings of their privileged and/or powerful groups to protect those weaker and preserve humanity. Besides the reiteration of previously learned lessons, Mr. Mitchell’s depiction of the nature of humanity as a tendency for the strong to climb over the weak on their way to the top of the evolutionary ladder, was critical for me in understanding not only my own morality, but to some degree, the morality of society in general. It engendered a similar feeling as Ms. O’Connor’s previously discussed work that morality is an escape from our baser nature, it is the reins by which we control the animal inside us all. Although this may seem dark and pessimistic, I think otherwise. The world is full of cruelty, violence, and hatred, but it pales in comparison to the carnage of a world where people simply did not exercise any control or moral reasoning. Everyday people make a decision as they are walking down the street to not be predatory or cruel, but to sometimes hold a door, share a smile, tell a fart joke, and treat others with dignity. They make a conscious decision that in my opinion runs counter to their natural instincts. That action, that decision, which is made over and over again, is inspiring and runs deeper than the overly simple and false dichotomy of people being naturally good or bad. We are what we are, but we have the ability to overcome that with reason, kindness, and morality.
Cloud Atlas also portrays the fact that we are all works in progress. Our journey through life is an experience not only of survival, but of growth. Mitchell portrays a down on his luck huckster editor who at a ripe age is still able to alter his current path and begin building a new future by finding his humanity, fighting his oppressors, and banding together with his fellow man. Mitchell writes of a man who finds humanity in the cruelest of circumstances and despite the cynics that surround him he still understands that not only are individuals a work in progress, but so is the society in which we live. Mr. Mitchell wrote of this man and his epiphany:
“…your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”
“Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
Every choice right or wrong adds to the mosaic of not only your life, but the lives of others. Like this character, our choices and our lives have greater meaning than we are capable of comprehending. We are building something larger and making the right choices and leading the right kind of lives determines the openness, beauty, peacefulness, and purity of this incomprehensible structure.
So after all this yammering what it really boils down to is that the thoughts and writings of these two authors have forever shaped the way I look at my own morality. I am not a very religious person, but I have always admired religion as means by which scores of people rise above their base selves to be more than just a body full of blood, flesh, and animalistic instinct. For many, religion provides a path to understanding and defining morality (like Ms. O’Connor who was greatly influenced by her Catholic faith), but for the rest of us skeptics, non-believers, and/or non-conformists we lack that guidepost and must seek out our own path. For me the path was lit with books, family, and friends. My family and friends taught me these lessons and writers like David Mitchell and Flannery O’Connor helped me understand them. Together these influences made me realize that we have the power to shape our lives, the lives of others, and our shared future. I learned that morality is a choice and that making the “right” decision impacts not only what happens to you, but also who you are as a person. I continue my search for morality to this day in every page I turn, person I meet, and lesson I am taught. So find your morality which ever way you like and maybe someday you will write a story that influences some adrift dude like me.