Follow the Drinking Gourd: Call to a New Goodness

Wanda Waterman

Follow the drinking gourd, follow the drinking gourd
For the old man’s a-waitin’ to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd                                                 

 In case you didn’t know, the above is from a song devised to guide runaway slaves to the north. The “drinking gourd” was the Big Dipper. I quote this because the journey to goodness is first and foremost a journey to freedom: freedom not only from the vices of others but also from your own tendency to sabotage your well-being.

The vigilant farm wife

In Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries orphaned or abandoned children were informally “adopted” by farmers to be used as cheap labour (in Anne of Green Gables Anne Shirley was adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert for this very reason). The abuses reported under this system initiated the reforms we have in place today.

Sadly, those who survived the more brutal of farm adoptions weren’t granted any reward for their years of hard service, and their shattered lives testified to the importance of loving, protective parents who took the time to teach their children well.

Not all the farm families were self-serving slave drivers; Marilla and Matthew were as much of a godsend to Anne as she was to them. In one anecdote a farmer’s wife looked out the window while washing up and caught a farm hand trying to lure her adopted daughter into the barn, proffering a doll. The woman ran out and fired the man on the spot. The little girl, nurtured and cultivated under the watchful eye of this wise woman, grew up to lead a long, contented life as a doctor’s wife.

No farm wife to save us

Today we’re surrounded by evil forces— by which I specifically mean manifestations of intentional harm— striving to lure us into a barn with some shiny new plaything, and we often find ourselves helplessly alone, no furious mother hen to come to our rescue. And if the mother hen shows up she’s accused of being judgmental, suspicious, paranoid, reactive, unforgiving, or any of a long string of adjectives used by evil to fight back anyone who’d thwart it.

How else do you explain that avarice is considered no longer a sin but a virtue? That young people are groomed from ever earlier ages to see themselves and each other as sex objects? And that even the old moral hypocrisies of the past are picking up steam, for example the renouncing of personal responsibility through blind obedience to tyranny, or the eye-for-an-eye justice model.

Thanks to the dedicated reflection and debate that came in the wake of the horrors of the 20th century, our society has become more ethically sophisticated, but in many ways we’ve declined in moral fortitude. Even the words “moral fortitude” sound so hokey that they arrive with a blush of embarrassment. With postmodern relativism we’ve grown beyond the old objective moral code with all its musty baggage. Right?

Not exactly. Relativism never did quite win a victory over traditional morality, largely because of the irony: claiming that no one has the right to morally judge another because morality is subjective is, well, a moral judgment. And it doesn’t help that those who support this way of thinking are often the finger-waggingest folks in town, snorting and sneering at anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the new, “progressive” moral agenda.

Marvelous spiritual beings

Our first encounters with relativism (the belief that there is no objective moral code and that we each choose what’s right and wrong for ourselves) enticed us to minimize the value of goodness by seeing it as circumscribed by our own persons. Our mistake was in assuming that this made goodness smaller. We still had no idea what marvelous spiritual beings we are and how deeply and mysteriously we’re connected to forces beyond us.

Escaping the lecherous farm hand

Here are just a few ways in which evil tries to tempt us into the barn of moral destruction:

  • Persuading us to reject the moral precepts of the past in their entirety, without examining them for the value they may still hold for us
  • Persuading us to accept strict moral standards wholly on the orders of an external authority
  • Making us reject new moral ideas because they don’t feel familiar or safe
  • Getting us away from our inner farm wife, that vigilant alertness that keeps us on guard against harmful forces
  • Keeping us in the dark about our personal weakness
  • Blinding us to our personal wondrousness

Follow the drinking gourd

The threat has weight. But I hesitate to call for a new morality, as this is already a movement, one that doesn’t seem to have moved far past the magical thinking and blind obedience of the old morality.

What I’d like to see take off is a movement for a new goodness, one that cherishes and preserves the most excellent moral ideals of the past while taking into consideration the deep lessons we humans have learned on our long, blundering journey toward the ideal of a just society.

The way to begin the path to goodness is simple: Maintain a daily spiritual practice whose goal is to improve your virtue and make you a better person. This doesn’t have to be according to any established religion (I’ve come to doubt that rigid adherence to any one religion has any lasting moral value in itself). Rather you should strive to get to know your true self and your higher power however you envision them. If you don’t believe in the idea of the true self or a higher power, simply spend some time in reflection, perhaps communing with nature or the fine arts, or journaling. Any artistic activity is a spiritual practice, as is addiction recovery and the striving for good relationships.

If enough of us did this we might see our profound collective stupidity diminish a little, resulting in a safer, happier world for everyone and fewer social sins like the enslavement of our fellow human beings.

This kind of thing can’t effectively be imposed from without, so it has to starts with us.






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