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

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.

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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.

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About 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.