Basic Goodness

I had a discussion with someone about trends in recent science fiction and fantasy, and how he doesn’t much care for them. So much fantasy is about war, and the visions of the future presented by science fiction are often bleak, pessimistic, or outright dystopian. He wondered why writers seem to lack positive vision, and as he knows I’m a writer, he seemed to hope that I would offer something more inspirational. I had to admit – maybe a little sheepishly – that my fiction tends to be dark, and the project I’m currently working on is absolutely brutal, but I think my characters come through in the end.

This is perhaps a roundabout way to get at the topic of basic goodness. Tuesday, May 7 has been designated Basic Goodness Day by Shambhala International, an organization that teaches meditation and lessons based on Tibetan Buddhism, inspired by the vision of an enlightened society. In the words of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of the organization:

We all know—can feel—that there is an enormous collective longing for a world that operates on principles of sanity. But where to begin?

All you have to do is know beyond doubt that you are good, that you possess inherent worth and value.

When you do, something extraordinary happens. You come into your power. Your confidence rises and your distrust lessens. Your world becomes full of possibility rather than hassles. You see that others also possess this goodness and your heart opens to them.

None of this means that we won’t have sorrow, rage, disappointment, and confusion. We will. But we discover a way to conquer them.

When we approach ourselves, others, and our world as basically good rather than basically bad, our actions, words, intentions, aspirations, gestures, energy—everything—change. This subtle shift in our state of mind can alter the environment we live in. It can actually change the world.

I wanted to convey this message but wondered how to do it, since this venue is so focused on writing. But writing is something I do; it’s not separate from me, and the themes I work with are not separate from things I believe in. I realized early on that my writing was largely about people trying to hold onto their humanity in inhuman circumstances. I hesitate to create “good guys” and “bad guys” – not only is this too simplistic, it fails to accurately describe humanity. There are always conflicts, and things people do can have terrible consequences, but there are reasons that they do them. Having an understanding of these reasons is, I find, one of the more interesting aspects of character creation.

But my writing is not separate from me. I don’t only need to have an understanding of my characters – I need to carry that understanding with me into the real world. One of the skills of a writer is creating a believable story, including characters who think and act like real humans. What I bring into character creation is what I see in reality. People have conflicts, they do things that have consequences, and there are reasons that they do them. Having an understanding of those reasons, or being willing to have an understanding, or at least to recognize that there are reasons even if we don’t understand them, is essential to respecting people enough to live with them. That respect is an acknowledgment of basic goodness.

It’s tempting as a writer to gather up some realizations and go scampering back into the safety of home, converting all that messy real life into characters and stories, which are so much easier to control and less risky. We can’t do that. We have to live in the real world. And we have a choice about how to live in the real world.

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