I visited the mall Christmas week. There is so much inspiration to be found in the mall’s messages. A banner gracefully hung from the rafters declared, “Refresh your wardrobe,” subtly nudging patrons to consider how outdated and frumpy they are.
Another marquee boldly declared, “Treat yourself, you’re worth it,” implying that “self-indulgence is a virtue, not a vice.” I am especially encouraged by the store Forever 21 as I prepare to celebrate another birthday. Forever 21 is a poignant reminder that youthfulness, not age, is our culture’s summum bonum. The mall’s values give voice to so many subliminal messages.
Yet, amidst these encouraging affirmations, one message particularly captured my attention. A publicly created mural stated, “Kindness is always fashionable.”
Congratulations to the artists as they accomplished their purpose. The multi-colored peace sign and white dove encircling the text caused me to stop and think about their advice.
However, my meditation might shock the creators. While seemingly promoting a positive trait, the mural’s message unknowingly affirmed a concept that today seems as archaic as the shopping mall itself —humans are not naturally “good.”
Think with me: when was the last time you needed a reminder to act in a way that was natural for you? For instance, I have never needed a reminder to be angry when slicing a golf ball out of bounds. And my wife does not leave notes on my dashboard reminding me to cuss when I am stuck in traffic. The mural’s need to encourage kindness affirms that humans do not consistently act kindly; instead, we naturally think and act unkindly.
My faith teaches that human nature is infected with a disease that causes us to look out for our wants and desires first and foremost, which seems consistent with my experience. The pull toward self-centeredness is so strong we often become violent when a desire is blocked or frustrated.
I find it ironic that the mural was placed at the mall’s entrance during the height of the shopping season —a time when the crowd can become downright cruel when the last pair of Jordans are at stake. This irony communicates a truth we wish we could ignore —namely, we are not naturally good, and humanity commits numerous evils in our minds, mouths, and with our hands.
Nevertheless, I understand why the conception of humans as naturally good is appealing. Humans are capable of many extraordinary charitable acts. We have the potential and often do help old ladies cross the street, rescue kittens stuck in trees, and even enable a stranded Miami Dolphins fan (although even the most hardened atheist might agree that this one is an act of supernatural grace).
But we are not very consistent in performing these good acts. And can we really say our purest actions are all that pure? Proximal good means we can act mercifully and compassionately at times, but even these seem infected with motives often animated by pride and self-centeredness. Why is there a nudge to post my good deeds on social media?
Humanity’s natural inclination toward selfishness and self-preservation is always present, but this does not mean we are incapable of acts of “proximal good.” Still, even these “good” acts are not immune from tainted motives.
Moreover, some contend that human nature is neither good nor bad; human nature is neutral, waiting for parents and society to write both good and evil on the soul. I remember a friend giving me sincere advice when we discovered we were pregnant with twins.
“Dan, just remember, there is no such thing as a bad kid, just bad parents,” he said pensively. Dear heavens! You mean I’m responsible for every moral decision these kids will make forevermore? Who can live under that pressure?!
I understand why some like to think that human nature is neutral. After all, our children receive everything from us in the early days. It seems reasonable to believe their moral decision-making is connected to our parenting and social conditions. And I don’t deny that many moral failures are a response to the actions of others —there is most certainly evidence to connect the dots.
But a connection does not necessarily mean everything is causal! Suppose parents and society are the cause of every moral evil. In that case, we are all hopeless victims, and no society can hold its citizens responsible —after all, “my parents, or teachers, or pastor, made me do it.”
Moreover, a morally neutral human nature doesn’t explain why my unprovoked twins yelled “No!” and threw their peas and carrots at my face. After all, I was trying to teach them the moral goodness of a responsible diet. It seems there is something profound in the human heart that reacts violently when a moral truth conflicts with one’s desires.
At this point, you might ask, “Why does human nature matter? Why take time to write about it?” Well, because human history feels like it is at an inflection point.
Everyone is carrying devices that constantly showcase horrific acts and unthinkable human tragedies. While human suffering is not new, our current connectedness shatters any illusion that we are essentially good beings. And the sheer volume of incredible deeds scrolling through our news feeds creates a sense of familiar bewilderment —“How could this happen?” seems like a daily refrain.
The mural’s message is a sincere effort to respond to suffering with all the resources the human mind can imagine —“look within,” “just try harder,” and “can’t we all just get” along?” But the fact that the message must be stated infers that the answer will not come from powers within (we don’t need reminders for what comes naturally).
The mall’s messages remind me that I need a savior. We need something from without, not from within, to understand and respond to suffering. This is another reason Jesus Christ’s gospel resonates so profoundly with me. I didn’t expect to have my faith reinforced by a message at the mall, but to those who took the time to paint it —thank you! You have strengthened my faith.