What Is Good?

In the middle of a major faith crisis five years ago, I went to visit my younger sister and her husband, who had left the Mormon church some twenty years previously. While they tried, I think, not to rag on Mormonism constantly when I was around, their beefs with the church came up now and again. I won't go into those now. But it was when we were talking about things completely unrelated to the church that I found myself impressed at how changed they were in their everyday habits. They drank alcohol, but only from local breweries. They didn't pay tithing to the Mormon church, but they consciously gave a tithe to other causes. The one thing my brother-in-law didn't do was drive a "green" vehicle, and he was a little defensive about it. But he pointed out that I had five children, so in comparison, his carbon footprint was still a lot smaller than mine.

In all my life as a conservative and faithful Mormon, I had never seriously entertained the point of view that having so many children was a selfish and immoral thing. My view of morality as a Mormon included being a steward to the earth, but it also included being a mother of a large family, with the belief that my children would be a benefit to the earth and to humanity at large. Indeed, if I do say so myself, my children are all very bright, very responsible, very ambitious kids. They're going to do things to change the world for the better, I believe. They will be tax payers for the next generation, and a part of me wanted to point out that any Social Security benefits that my sister and brother-in-law get when they are older will be because of my children.

But hearing my brother-in-law say it was selfish to have so many kids was a moment for me to see that what I had always considered good and unselfish could be turned completely on its ear and be seen as the opposite by someone with a different moral compass. What did that mean to me, now that I was struggling with what I believed to be true? I wasn't sure. I began to reconsider other black and white moral viewpoints, including abortion, welfare, LGBT groups, and more. There were many people who were as fervently engaged in promoting their morality in exact opposition to the moral positions I had once held so securely. Were they simply deluded? Selfish? Finding ways to excuse their own behavior? The closer I looked, the less likely this seemed to be.

Mormons believe that everyone is born with the "light of Christ" that enables us to tell the difference between good and evil. But when I was in my faith crisis, I really wasn't sure I could tell the difference between good and evil anymore. In fact, I wasn't sure that there was such a thing as good and evil. It seemed there were only differing points of view and you just had to choose which side you agreed with more. This was a painful change for me, since I had spent so many years believing that truth was truth and everything else was wrong. There were many times when I wished I could simply go back to the person I had been before, who seemed to know everything and be so sure about right and wrong. But that was impossible.

Still, I want goodness desperately. Eventually, I realized that I was going to have to give up the idea that there were "good people" and "bad people," and possibly even the idea of good and evil in the world of politics. My religion was no longer going to be a way to make easy choices about which candidate was the right one, how to raise my children, or how to make my marriage work long-term. I also realized that I have grown up with a default judgmentalism about other people that is truly embarrassing and is one of the things that I most have to work on. The easy assumption that when others are doing something different from what I have chosen, and therefore they are wrong and that any negative consequences that come to them as a result of their differing choices are "deserved" has had to be thrown out the window.

But ultimately, I have come back around to believing in right and wrong, in good and evil, when it comes to my own life choices. Because I know myself better than I once did, I find I can see more clearly what path would lead me to darkness and what to light. And what surprised me most was that choosing happiness for myself and for my family, for all of the relationships I care about it, is not selfish but deeply good. Allowing others the right to choose happiness for themselves, however that may differ from my own happiness, is part of this goodness. Listening to others when they talk about their own path to happiness is the new work of my life, because this enables me to see what happiness itself is more clearly and more broadly. It helps me reconsider what might make me happy and it helps me to choose sometimes to bring happiness to others while also holding to my own happiness.

Mormons talk about God's plan for the world as the "Plan for Happiness," and there are several Mormon scriptures that talk about God's goals being human-centric. God's plan is to "bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man," for instance. God doesn't do what He does for his own purposes. He does what He does to help us move farther along the path to happiness in an eternal sense. So, perhaps I have not strayed so very far, after all, in my Mormon upbringing. Perhaps it's just that I had to reach a place where I could re-examine assumptions about happiness in order to find a way to see a greater good. And perhaps I needed to see that it wasn't for me to choose what is good or bad for others, but only for myself.