When I was about your age, my mother taught me a way to look at people and their behaviors that’s based on an old biblical phrase: “fighting the good fight.” In the Bible, the phrase points to Christian living. But Mom used it in a broader, more secular sense–and sometimes with a slightly ironic wink.
The way Mom used it, “fighting the good fight” suggests a standard we could put to use productively today. So let’s explore the idea bit by bit.
First, The Good Bit
Most people are basically decent. We all have our emotional baggage and our cognitive blind spots, not to mention our behavioral idiosyncrasies and outright vices. But the vast majority of us avoid hurting others intentionally. (See “The Other 7 Billion of Us.”)
We don’t mean to be mean, even if we sometimes are. We basically try to play fair, even if we sometimes put our thumbs on the scales. We get annoyed with each other, and we can also be pretty annoying. But we largely follow the rules of social interaction that enable us all to get along.
In sum: most of us aren’t sociopaths, psychopaths, monsters, or demons. We’re flawed, but we meet a basic threshold of human decency.
Second, the Fighting Bit
Many of us go a bit further: We don’t just live and let live; we actively engage in efforts to make our communities better. We join the PTA or volunteer with church groups. We coach baseball teams or serve on neighborhood committees. We work for nonprofit organizations or donate money to them. We participate in civil society, and–this point is important–we don’t do it simply to advance our own narrow interests. We seek to contribute to the common good.
This is not to say that we’re wholly altruistic or self-sacrificing. We aren’t, but that’s okay. Building healthy communities and cultures doesn’t require that we all become angels. It just requires that many of us go a step beyond the most basic decency: Not only do we have to avoid hurting others; we have to help make the world better. Or, as Mom would have said, we have to fight the good fight.
That’s really all she meant by the phrase: People who are working to make things better–for all or for others–are “fighting the good fight.”
Third, the Ironic Bit
So, why the ironic wink?
Note that, on this definition, a person can “fight the good fight” without being anyone I like or agree with–about politics, religion, music, art, sports team loyalty, or any of the myriad other markers of participation in a particular tribe or group. A person can come from a different background, subscribe to a different religion, proffer different political principles, etc. and still pick up trash along the roadway, feed the hungry at a soup kitchen, deliver elderly neighbors to doctor’s appointments–not to mention serve in the military, volunteer as a first responder, and on and on.
I can vehemently disagree with such a person on many points, including matters of principle. But I still have to admit that, at least at some level, they’re fighting the good fight. And that’s precisely what mom would tell me with her wink.
“Steven,” the wink would say (somehow adopting mom’s voice in my head), “we may not agree with this guy on everything, but we have to admit that he’s fighting the good fight. And we have to admit that means there’s common ground between us, even if it’s hard to find it sometimes.”
Why This Matters
Humans often see the world in binary terms, not least when it comes to politics: Democrats versus Republicans, liberals versus conservatives, us versus them. But the “fighting the good fight” standard crosscuts such binaries in a particularly powerful way, asking as it does about the actual behaviors of real people in real communities.
It suggests that we all start by recognizing some fundamental facts: That anyone who goes to work for good is not all bad. That we share common ground with everyone fighting the good fight. And that we can and should continue to work to build on that ground together, even if doing so is difficult.
We have to continue to build bridges with the many decent people with whom we otherwise disagree. And we need to reserve our vitriol and contempt–on all sides–for the psychopaths, the monsters, and those who aren’t actually fighting the good fight in any way.
The future will always belong to the people who get to work building communities, not those who spend their energy tearing others down. Or, at any rate, the only future worth having belongs to the builders. So go out and fight the good fight. And measure others by whether they do the same. Your grandmother and I will be watching–and, as necessary, winking encouragement. 😉