The Whole Truth About How (Not) Rotten Human Beings Can Be

It’s what the news will never tell you about people. It’s what comedians will never joke about. It’s the unseen part of every human being…


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I walk into the house on a random Wednesday night and the television is on, tuned to the local news. I can’t remember the last time we watched the news in our house.

And I’m quickly reminded why.

The local newscasters recount story after story of death and murder and tragedy and fear. By the time the commercial break puts a pause in the terror, I’m convinced I need to beef up my home security system, quarantine my family, and immediately change every password on every account.

I hit the power button.

Oldest Son: Why did you do that?

Me: At most, ten percent of what people did in the world today was horrible, but they make it look like bad stuff is the only thing going on.

Oldest Son: Oh, it’s way more than ten percent.

Me: How much of what you did today was horrible and mean? Was it more than ten percent?

Oldest Son (head tilted thoughtfully): No. And I guess I’m a pretty typical guy.

He laughs and walks away to do something that is almost certain to be not-horrible. My pretty awesome, sometimes mean, sometimes cruel, but usually good and kind and beautiful boy, running off to do something that will never make the news. Something like playing. Something like breathing and living and laughing and generally being goodness in the world.

The Surface Part of People

I used to blame the nightly news for convincing people the world is a basically rotten place. But the truth is, that’s not how people work. We don’t go around looking for things to shape our worldview; we go around looking for things to confirm our worldview. We believe the world is a rotten place, and we watch the nightly news to confirm what we already believe. And to find out how to protect ourselves from the rottenness.

Why do we believe people are basically rotten?

Because there are three parts to every human being, and we only pay attention to two of them.

The first part of us is the façade—all the things we do to be acceptable to the world. All the things we do to get by without attracting too much shame, embarrassment, humiliation, and rejection. It’s the shiny stuff and the plastered smile and saying the things we’re supposed to say. Most of what’s openly on display in the world is façade.

Façades leave us lonely.

The Rotten Part of People

The second part of every human being lies just beneath the façade. It is, indeed, our rottenness. It’s our darkness. Our shadow. Our bad stuff. Our ego and all the tangled webs it weaves. And it’s the animal part of us that will do anything to get what it needs and wants.

We’re rotten to ourselves, telling ourselves over and over we’ll never be enough of this or enough of that. We’re rotten toward others, judging and criticizing and envying. And we can be rotten toward this planet we call home, doing whatever we want to it for our own benefit.

We lie and cheat and steal and beat and bruise and hurt and wound.

When you look past the surface of things, we look like pretty rotten people.

Several years ago, a friend said to me, “Comedians are the truth tellers.” He’s right. Comedians are the ones who look at the dark underbelly of life and humanity and then talk about it in public. They’re like the six o’clock news with jokes. Our comedians are our confessors—they have mustered the courage to pull our ego and our animal up out of the depths and tell the truth about it.

But I’m starting to wonder if they’re telling us the whole truth.

I’m wondering what would happen if they waited just a little longer to make us laugh. I wonder what would happen if they continued to look deeply into the darkness. I’m wondering if they might see the beauty beneath the ugly, the light pushing through the dark.

Because it is there.

I’ve seen it.

The Beautiful Part of People

Many of us never glimpse the deepest part of humanity, even in ourselves.

It’s the part of us that begins to emerge through the rottenness when the confession is over. It’s the light we begin to notice if we can let ourselves stay in the darkness long enough. No reporting. No joking. Just stillness in the darkness. Waiting. Watching. Listening. For light and for beauty and for goodness.

As a therapist, I get to sit around long enough, waiting, and I get to encounter the light in people. I’ve seen it. It’s at the center of us and it’s brilliant and it’s sacred. And it’s waiting to be found.

But the only way to find it is with attention. Stillness. Awareness sustained long enough to see the other ninety percent of what’s happening within us and all around us:

The baby laughing and gurgling and reaching for the eyes that feed him.

The young boy lifting worms out of a rain-damp driveway and returning them to the grass.

The young girl lost in the colors of summertime sidewalk chalk.

Siblings protecting each other and

young women deciding to have a voice and

young men respecting the word “No” and

a swelling generation of young people who care more about unity than political platforms and

couples prepared to love by losing and

mothers armed with Band-Aids and tenderness and

fathers learning how to play again and

a whole spinning planet full of people who are finally waking up to the light beneath the darkness.

In the words of one of my son’s favorite songs: “Everybody’s bones are just holy branches.” Now, that’s news. It doesn’t make for a great joke, but it does make for a great hope.

Question: Want to tell us about something beautiful you’ve witnessed in people? Or in yourself? Want to fill up the comments section with hope? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Next Post: What to Do When Things Break Bad and There’s No One to Blame

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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19 thoughts on “The Whole Truth About How (Not) Rotten Human Beings Can Be

  1. I have no children but I’m a PANK (professional aunt no kids)
    My sister in law never been able to understand how to get along so well with children.In June was birthday number 8 to my niece Ariana
    My sister in law found my niece, my little nephew and me under the table…sorry …inside the castle of Lady Ariana, taking tea in invisible gold tea cups
    And in which his brother,Lord Yago,told us when he was hunting dragons in Australia.

    Love this…make my world better.They are my sun.

    • Alejandra, that is a lovely story! My kids have a PUNK (ha!) who is coming over tonight to celebrate one of their birthdays. They adore him. Kids can sense when we are eager to join them.

  2. Patience

    Do you have the patience to wait

    till your mud settles and the water is clean?

    Can you remain unmoving

    till the right action arises by itself?

    Tao Te Ching

    • That book is amazing. I’ve read it a few times already but I think I’ll need to read it a few hundered more times to even start to get it.

    • Scott, thank you for this. Miss talking with you and hope to see you in the Hangout in a couple of weeks!

  3. I live in dartmouth nova scota , Canada. here recently in the newspaper was an account of 5 brave men, all strangers who risked their lives to recue one woman, barley conscious in a smoking, starting to burn car. they had to go down an embankment and pull her out all while the fire started to shoot out flames. No names exchanged, they just did their job, got her to a safe area and waited till paramedics arrived then went on their way. 🙂

    • I’m from Uruguay.That you tell us,remeber me that last Monday in the news I saw like a firefighter saves a puppy from drowning in the stream of a river in flood

      • Makes all the more special that they risked their lives and just went on their way. Thank you for reminding us that every day millions of acts of courage and kindness go unnoticed by many , but are still here nonetheless. I have been ” accused” of being too positive at times. haha. not completely “pollyanna” but close. and you knwo what? What is wrong with that. One can be caring and realistic yet still believe in the bigger picture of good. Thank you for confirming that I am not alone in this thinking. I believe in the power of prayer for humanity and all of us can raise that vibration. I was told once, that goodness is 10 times more powerful energy-wise over bad. just think what even a small number of us can do with those positive thoughts of ours. taho! M’stinokamaq ( from the Mi’kmaq first nations language here in Nova Scoti) meaning .. O.K. All my relations…… reminding us that we are all connected to not only other humans- the 2 legged_ but all of Mother Earth… her creatures, the land, the sky etc. wa’lalin… thank you

  4. A little more than a decade ago, Shoshana, pregnant with her first child, was killed in the Sbarro restaurant bombing in Jerusalem. Her widower, Shmuel Greenbaum, decided the best way to honor his wife’s memory was to publish stories of people being kind to each other. His website,, exists to inspire “us to make a difference in the world.” I get an email every day with stories of kindnesses from small to large, but mostly small, because as Mother Teresa is reported to have said, we can do no great things, only small things with great love.

    • Michele, thanks for sharing this. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope others will check it out, too. Small things with great love.

  5. Dr Kelly,
    I love this. I was just telling my hubby yesterday morning as he proclaimed the world a whacked place after reading the newspaper, that it isn’t newsworthy that daddies kiss their kids goodbye and all the other bazillions beautiful moments in the lives of humans on the planet. We are so on the same page on that. But my view of the three parts does not have our light buried under our shadow. I think most of are tuned to our own shadow to keep us safe from the consequences of being “bad.” When I look around I see so much more light, it’s so far from awaiting to be found, it’s right here, everywhere, in plain sight. I guess what you are pointing to is the point of view of the viewer. We find what we expect to find. That said, it seems to me the only way to work with the shadow is to give it the proper attention. To see it with our light. That’s what you do, and it’s sacred too.

    • Cara, what a fantastic reflection. I think you nailed it. We see our shadow with our light. In fact, some thinkers would say that the moment we observe our shadow we become aware we are not one with it, and those are the first rays of light. May we all begin to see with our light the way you do!

  6. Thank you. What a beautiful, beautiful post. My heart got caught in my throat mid-breath when I read “Everybody’s bones are just holy branches.” Yes. The light is here. It is everywhere & in everyone and surrounds everything, if we will just receive it. Thank you Kelly.

    • Thanks, Jen. It’s a beautiful song: “Holy Branches” by Radical Face on an album entitled “Family Tree: The Branches.” It’s the second in a trilogy of albums.

  7. Thank you again, Kelly. I needed to read this today as I needed a reminder of what I need to do about a student of mine this year. I teach adults and I am having a difficult time with one student and the year is only starting! You reminded me that I need to sit in the silence and wait to be able to see her light and goodness. I also need to do the same for me. I see your light shining. Please keep it shining! We need it.

    • Thanks, Jenny, and I’m glad that this post could speak to such a specific situation in your life. I’d definitely refer you to the quote Scott posted below, as it speaks to right seeing and right action. There’s so much truth in it. Let us know how it goes with the student, ok?

  8. Dr. Kelly,

    Another magnificent post. I’ll share a story about something beautiful I saw this morning. There is a boy in my neighborhood. A “misfit” by worldly standards. He was home-schooled until this year and he’s not very adept socially. He tries all the things people “think” they need to do to fit in. I’ve watched him grow up over the last 11 years. He is awkward, the neighborhood kids don’t like him much. At my request, my kids used to play with him, but now that they are 14 and 15, they think he’s a goof. No matter how much I remind them that all of us are “Imago Dei” my boys don’t always love the unlovable. (Truth be told, I don’t either…but I strive to).

    A little bit of back story before I continue; my kids struggle to get up on time for school. It’s always a race to the bus.This boy now attends their High School and rides the same bus. This morning, my kids missed the bus and I was upset that, once again, I was driving them the 7 miles to school. On my way home, pulling into the neighborhood, there was “the boy” on his far too small bike, backpack and all. I passed him by and waved, got into my neighborhood and thought, “Is he going to bike all the way to school?” I had a jam packed day, my share of real crises to deal with, I had no time for further interruptions. But there he was. So I turned my car around, pulled out of my neighborhood and found him. I called to him by name, and asked if he wanted a ride. He quickly peddled over, I tossed the bike in my trunk and off we went. What a conversation we had. In that 7 mile drive, I found out the “life” pains this kid struggles with and I saw the beauty in him that his peers just can’t (or won’t) look for. Not only did I give him a ride…I had a chance to speak hope and love into his life. I got him to school one minute before the bell. What I hope is that he got out of my car feeling that the world is not such a terrible place and that he is truly valuable.

    We all battle with maintaining an accurate worldview – and negative news never helps that perspective. One thing is certain. We all need hope and we all need love. Too much of my attention goes to things like paying the bills and not giving up when adversity is as every turn. But at the core, I want to be an encourager…a light in the darkness…a life changer in whatever sphere of influence I have. Thank you for being that to your readers Dr. K!

    • Anthony, I’ve tried to write several replies to your comment. I deleted each of them because they didn’t do justice to how you honored that boy. So, let me just say this: I’ll be a better man tonight because I read your story. Which is to say, I’ll be reminded to subordinate my ego to my “Imago Dei.” Thank you.

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