In a winter term class on theology and film, I offered my students a concluding challenge. I asked them to define “goodness” without falling into two traps.
One, they were not allowed to define goodness as the absence of evil. I didn’t want them to decide what goodness isn’t, but what goodness is.
The second stipulation that I set down was that my students were to avoid sentimentality in defining goodness. Goodness is not something captured in a greeting card sentiment; it cannot be confused with cuddliness or cuteness.
To stimulate our thinking, we watched a movie that centers on goodness. “The Straight Story” is a little-known film by David Lynch, a film based on the true account of Alvin Straight, an elderly man who discovers that his only brother has had a stroke. A decade before, the brothers had fought and cut off relations, and Alvin, in hearing the news, decides to travel from Iowa to Wisconsin to reconcile with his brother.
The problem that Alvin faces immediately is that he has lost his driver’s license because of age and failing eyesight. Sensing he needs to make this trip alone, Alvin hitches a homemade trailer to a riding lawnmower and heads off at 5 mph. But Alvin has a deeper problem than his odd mode of transportation. As Alvin admits, he has to swallow his pride in order to reconcile with his brother. The slow pace of his journey and the similarly slow pace of the movie allow Alvin as well as us the viewers to note how the trip changes Alvin.
In many ways, Lynch is the last director that we would expect to be interested in this small story. Lynch’s films are usually
disturbing explorations of evil, the evil that he sees below the surface of seemingly normal American life. “The Straight Story” is Lynch’s only exploration of goodness, and he treats this trait as something very rare.
As so often happens, my students’ reflections for this assignment forced me to reconsider my own assumptions. How do I define goodness? Do I understand goodness as something easy to practice or rare, as Lynch suggests?
Perhaps the most significant insight the class came to is that goodness should not be confused with niceness. We say someone is a good person when he does something nice for us or for others. Based on the film, however, my class saw the two terms differently.
A lasting memory for me from this class will be the astute comment made by one student who noted that niceness describes behaviors that put a Band-Aid on what is broken or hurt.
Consider what happens when we encounter someone we know and ask how her day is going. If she confesses that she is going through a rough patch at present, the nice responses range from “Hang in there” to “Things will look brighter tomorrow” to “Sorry to hear that.” Ten minutes later, we will likely have forgotten all about the exchange.
Along the route to Iowa, Alvin Straight encounters a series of strangers, all of them struggling with issues that cause them pain or sorrow. In most of Lynch’s films, that setup would lead to scenes of horror or cruelty. But in “The Straight Story,” Alvin’s trip has a transforming effect on everyone he encounters.
In Alvin’s treatment of others, my students suggested that we can see how vastly different goodness is from niceness. Alvin offers no Band-Aid. Rather, he takes time to listen with his whole being and then says or does something that heals, rather than covers, the pain and sorrow of the other person. To do this, Alvin must often share the pain and sorrow that caused him to travel down a highway on a John Deere lawnmower.
It is tempting to think that what our country or any society needs most is for people to simply be nicer. We assume that racial tensions, religious tensions, ethnic frictions and class divides would be reduced if people agreed to “play nice” with one another. But healing the deep wounds of our country’s or any country’s history will not result from smiles to strangers or pat comments in the supermarket line.
What my students helped me see is this: If we sincerely want healing to occur in our families, in our communities, in our country and in the world, we will need more people like Alvin Straight, persons willing to take the difficult and humbling journey of goodness.
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College and the author of “Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World” available in bookstores or on Amazon.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.