A decade ago, when I daily toiled at my blog, I would sift through emails or moderate comments and occasionally encounter those who would presume to tell me I was going to hell. Sometimes I would see these same people on social media and be struck by how incapable they seemed of putting out a good word in season to anyone, except those who were similarly cranky or dyspeptic. They were simply miserable, unhappy people, capable of laughter only, it seemed, if the joke came at the expense of someone they and their cohorts were openly gossiping about.
It always bothers me to see Christians get into such a habit of derision that they seem unable to speak a six-word sentence that might be the most humane and important one we can utter, because it puts us in perfect agreement with the Creator: “It is good that you exist.”
As Pope Benedict XIV, then Joseph Ratzinger, wrote:
It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived as accepted that it becomes also acceptable. Man is that strange creature that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if he is to subsist. . . . If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist”—must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love. (Principles of Catholic Theology)
It’s one of the greatest life lessons I have ever come across and tried to absorb; admittedly, it is a thought process that requires practice before it becomes natural. I don’t get much hate mail anymore, but when I do, it feels very right to take a breath and internally say those words to the writer: “It is good that you exist.”
It is astonishing how quickly bringing that thought to mind—remembering that each of us is created and sustained by the ardent “yes” of the Creator—tamps down my old Irish temper, and it works both for nasty emails and the sometimes onerous engagement on social media. It’s good to actually use the words. When I do, either virtually or in person, people are usually disarmed; even over the ether, one can almost hear the gasp, the intake of breath at the unexpected volley, “It is good that you exist.”
Perhaps it is even more powerful to convey this important message by our actions. What better communicates to someone that “it is good” that he or she exists than taking the time to talk to them (or sing or read to them—something I rarely experienced as a child, and value as an adult). Making eye contact, too, communicates it, but it’s often difficult because it is so direct; for many it’s too intimate, and makes them too vulnerable.
Because my brother had a massive stroke at a young age, and eventually could not live with us (this was way before visiting assistance), we would bring him home on weekends, and when we went to get him from the facility the older people would come up to me, so hungry for company, asking “Are you my daughter? Would you like to talk to me?” As an adolescent, I found encounters with such needfully expressed loneliness to be a little scary, but also heartbreaking. It was always difficult to go there and see people in wheelchairs, parked for hours before a television set, and there ignored—not because the staff was anything but busy, mind you—but still, they were barely engaged, and certainly not hearing the message that their existence was still a good thing.
We live in such a throwaway culture. Women throw away their babies; children (not all of them) put their declining elders into facilities and then forget about them. Others argue for euthanasia, sometimes in the crassest terms possible:
One of the things that would motivate me [to die] is I couldn’t bear hanging on and being such a burden on people. . . . I don’t see what is so horrible about the motive of not wanting to be an increasing nuisance. If I went into a nursing home it would be a terrible waste of money that my family could use far better. (Baroness Warnock)
The poor Baroness died in 2019 but seemed ready and willing a decade earlier to reduce herself to a thing, and not to understand that it was good that she existed—that she was something more than a mere nuisance or a waste of money.
Or perhaps she feared living in a world where others would not understand that, because people throw other people away all the time. They blow them up or terrorize them, or demand they be deprived of their livelihoods; they throw people away by blithely consigning them to hell—as though they are God, who himself sends no one to hell, because he has given all judgment to Christ Jesus, before whom we will all eventually stand.
Throwing people away, either literally or metaphorically, seems to me a very un-Christian thing to do. In those times when “It is good that you exist” seem like the most challenging six words in the world, that’s when we most need to bring them to the fore— speak them to another or to oneself—in order to break the tension and gain some perspective on just how puny we really are in all of our bloviations. Six little words can help us to see the personhood of the one with whom we are in disagreement—that he or she is not simply an amorphous blob of ideo-theological energy exploding off a screen, or an annoying presence impeding the grocery line.
And when we see the person before us as a genuine and God-beloved human being, it becomes—or it should become—more difficult to simply dismiss them, or mindlessly lob buzzwords and bumpersticker cant their way, and even more difficult to suggest “Oh, I know all about you” on the basis of a single word, or line, or retweeted headline.
What a conceit that is, to think one can know all about another, especially in this medium. Ultimately, we none of us know a thing about anyone else we are reading and engaging with on the internet. Were I to write a million words on any issue—were I to write a memoir that would alternately enrage you and break your heart—you still would not know me. And if you were to comment on every line of my prose, I would still be utterly ignorant of who you really are.
So, imagine how the world in all of its furies might truly begin to flourish toward peace, if we could keep just those two things in mind.
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
It is good that you exist.
Anyway, I’ll keep trying to remember both and apply as needed. I’ve been told that intention counts!