How Fiction Taught Me To Be a Good Person

Some religions teach that if, while on Earth, a person does bad things, if a person subscribes to the wrong god, if a person does not do penance for the wrongs they have committed, then that person’s soul will rot, burn, or suffer unspeakably in some heinous underworld after death. Some religions teach that to be prosperous in the next life, one must live honorably during this one.

(Disney)
(Disney)

But some people don’t have religion, or for others, religion isn’t enough.

As a child, I attended church as a part of routine. I was taught to do unto others, love thy neighbor, that sort of thing–all very admirable, but as I got older, even when I was still just a kid, I knew I didn’t have a religious bone in my body. But this isn’t about that. I’m not here to start a religious debate or to bully the faithful, but I do want to talk about how, in the absence of faith–in the absence of a theological hierarchy that clearly differentiates between right and wrong with equally clear consequences and rewards, how it’s still possible to lead a good and decent life.

My parents were the first people to teach me to be a good person: “Don’t be mean to your brother, Roxanne. Roxanne, stop hitting your brother. Roxanne–no! Roxanne! I’m going to count to three!” That kind of thing, but also to say please and thank you, to be genuinely grateful upon receiving a gift, to help people and accept help, to share, that murder is bad, etc. I was, however, left to make greater philosophical decisions about the human condition by myself, something for which I’m grateful to my parents.

It was fiction, in the end, that helped me with those decisions. It wasn’t all at once, it wasn’t a single book or show or movie, but there are certainly titles that stick out that I know made me the person I am today, that made me good. 

With the of the Boston Marathon bombing perpetrator, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, potentially facing the death penalty for his role in the bombing, hearing the arguments of his lawyers on the news for why he should be spared, I kept thinking WWJLPD? What would Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise do?

This is a face I trust implicitly. (CBS via fanpop.com)
This is a face I trust implicitly.
(CBS via fanpop.com)

Don’t think that just because Captain Jean-Luc Picard is technically fictional (he’s not fictional in my heart) doesn’t mean that he can’t shed some light on the situation. Picard is part of the greater Star Trek mythos, one that is based on a society that has shed most of its burdens–there is no poverty, war, or the mundane diseases that plague our modern society. It’s a society that is built on the fundamental respect for life in all its forms, expanding the definition of humanity to include alien races and androids. As a result, the death penalty is not a viable form of punishment. Hell, they don’t even eat real meat–they synthesize it on their Replicators.

What would Jean-Luc Picard do? He would say that despite Tsarnaev’s blatant disregard–nay, contempt– for human life, we should not respond in kind. Just because he had no respect for the lives of many does not mean that we should disregard our respect for one.

I don’t think there was ever a particular moment when I thought “Yeah, Star Trek has definitely influenced my moral compass,” but watching it, seeing an almost utopian (albeit fictional, I grant you) future society has made me want to live up to it, it makes me want to be worthy of such a future.

It's fine. I'm not crying.  (Warner Bros. via blogspot.com)
It’s fine. I’m not crying.
(Warner Bros. via blogspot.com)

But it’s not just final frontiers and virtuous starship captains. Harry Potter has gotten me through tough times. It’s taught me to keep fighting the good fight, but that it’s totally fine to be completely sick of doing so. It taught me that friendship isn’t always easy. It taught me that the people we love never really leave us and that we can’t always help who we are, but we can help what we do.

Harry Potter is full of wisdom that goes under the radar until we are old enough, wise enough, to understand. As many religions teach to love thy neighbor, Harry Potter teaches us to love free of judgement. While Harry Potter might not necessarily teach us to love our enemy, it certainly asks us to respect its power, to confront our enemy not with hate, but with determination and confidence in our own convictions.

And there are books that teach us what not to be. Almost every character in Twilight is a pretty solid example of what not to be. Except the dad, the realest dude in the whole series. Reading Twilight indirectly taught me how to be self-reliant by slowly realizing how co-dependent and emotionally manipulative so many of the characters are to each other. It taught me that there is a difference between being a hopeless romantic and being hopelessly dominated by romance.

There are books with more complicated lessons, like the works of Jane Austen. They taught me it is possible to be a heroine and essentially flawed at the same time, that to be a heroine, one does not necessarily need to overcome those flaws, so much as to confront them and make an effort. As much as I enjoy Austen’s novels for their romances that end neatly and gratifyingly, I especially like them because of their frank discussions of families, of loyalties, and the way women function and express themselves in a society that prefers them not to speak. I have learned from Jane Austen that if you have a voice, you should use it, but also that it is better to be thoughtful and say less than it is to be careless and say more.

I suppose what I’m saying that in the absence of religion, I’ve never felt lost. Fiction has been more fulfilling for me than a sermon has ever been. Again, it isn’t my intention to disparage those with faith or whose religion is precious and important to them.

I just mean to say that words can sometimes end up being the Word.

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