“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.”
When I was in middle school, I was forbidden to see the new Batman movie starring Michael Keaton. I understand why:
He was complicated.
He was a superhero, but he was depicted as dark and disturbed and a little unhinged. Instead of wearing his trademark gray, he cloaked himself in black. Instead of telling jokes, he was somber and depressed. He did good things, but he did them for the wrong reasons. He was a complicated, tortured soul, working out his redemption in the best way he knew how.
He was a good guy, but he had bad parts.
In a word, he was human.
Now, almost twenty-five years later, our cinematic superheroes are increasingly complicated. They are good guys with bad parts. We’ve become quite comfortable with the complexity of our fictional characters.
Yet, we continue to resist, and fail to embrace, this complexity in our lives and in our hearts…
Pedestals and Pitfalls
We scan the horizon for the next real-life hero, and we imagine them to be flawless. We put people on pedestals. And then we get surprised when they fall off:
We idolize people with great golf swings, and then we find out they’re addicted to sex. We idolize the triumph of bicyclists, and then we find out they were juicing. We tell ourselves our political candidate is the good guy, and then he leaves his microphone on and we hear words that are only supposed to come from the bad guys. We get dismayed when we find out the Dalai Lama gets just as angry as we do.
So we continue to scan the horizon, waiting for the next infallible hero to lead us.
The truth is, all of this hero worship is a collective exercise in self-rejection.
We look inside of our own hearts and we see the bad parts lingering there and we assume we must not be one of the good guys. We look in the mirror and we don’t see a flawless hero; we see a complicated human. And we forget what the superhero movies have been trying to tell us for a quarter of a century:
Humans and heroes are one and the same.
The Line Between Good and Evil
I’m confronted by my good-badness with every blog post.
I write for good reasons—simply because I love to write and because I hope my words might provide a little clarity about this life we’re all living. But if I’m honest, nestled right next to all that authenticity and goodwill is a decent-sized dose of self-interest. It emerges, usually, once the post goes live:
Will people like it? Will they like me? Will they share it? Will they spread the word?
I’m not thrilled with the self-interested part of me. Sometimes I want to disregard it altogether, pat myself on the back for being a pretty great guy, and ignore all my frustrating complexity. I can do a lot of harm to others when I start thinking of myself as the flawless good guy. At other times, I’m tempted to focus only on the self-interested part of me—I start to loathe my tireless ego, and I begin to wonder if I’m worthy of publishing even one more sentence.
These days, instead of casting myself as either a good guy or a bad guy, I try to embrace both my good parts and my bad parts. In a word, I try to give myself grace. By acting like a puppy dog.
Like a Puppy Dog
Last December, I finally caved to peer pressure (read: wife and kids) and gave my blessing to getting a puppy. At first I liked him. And then he chewed my MacBook cord in half. We’ve had a rocky relationship ever since. He’s seen the best of me, and he’s seen the worst of me. Yet, every day when I arrive home, he is waiting at the back door for me, tail wagging, just thrilled to be with me again.
Grace is a like a puppy dog, welcoming home both our good parts and our bad parts, simply overjoyed to be with us again.
What if we all gave ourselves this kind of grace?
What if we welcomed home all of ourselves, embraced everything we are, and learned to rest in the fullness of our humanity? What if we recognized ourselves as complicated souls working out our redemption in the best way we know how?
I think we’d quit scanning the horizon for the next infallible hero. Instead, we’d look in the mirror and realize we are one of the good guys and one of the bad guys, all at the same time. Hopelessly complicated, thoroughly flawed, endlessly fallible. In other words, beautifully human.
We’d look in the mirror and we’d realize the heroes have already arrived, and we are one of them. We’d realize we are a quiet hero, walking amongst other quiet heroes. When we finally embrace the fullness of our humanity, we might also embrace the fierceness of our heroism.
Calling all heroes. Which is to say, calling all humans.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.