G.K. Chesterton was a witty english writer who was called the “prince of paradox.” He had a knack for challenging the way people saw politics, civic life, faith, and personal character. Chesterton was larger than life, and the portrait I have of him in my office shows him as a saint, with a halo around his head, and a pint of beer and cigar in his hand. He was indeed a paradox of sinner and saint all wrapped in one.
He used his paradoxical wit to challenge his readers. He wanted them to think, and deeply. Chesterton once said wryly, “The word ‘good’ has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.” With a dose of dark humour Chesterton called to attention our deeper values. What is good for you? Is it what you have or own? The quality of your relationships? Your career? Your community? Goodness is something we might try to attain, but maybe it is something to be found in the world around us.
For Chesterton goodness meant so much more than being right, moral, or some kind of purist. He believed that goodness reflected something that was innately true about the very world we live in, and something we could join in. He eschewed a kind of moralism when he said, “God is not a symbol of goodness, goodness is a symbol of God.” When we enjoy our relationships, invest in friends, stand with gratitude after a job well done, and encourage those around us, we see all of the good things in our lives as a sign post to something more, something beautiful, perhaps even something both rustic and holy.
Is it possible that the world if full of goodness? Philosophers throughout history have debated this. The cynics would say no. There was too much that was disheveled, disordered, and imperfect in the world for it to be good. Death and decay, along with sadness and pain was a sign that this was not a good world. The best we could do is get through it and suffer until it was over. But others did not buy it. The world might be messy, but so are gardens. Things might die, but they also give way to life. Winter might cover the ground, but spring always offers a promise. There was something redemptive in nearly every broken thing. G.K. Chesterton was right, “The word ‘good’ has many meanings.”
We can choose to live as cynics in our city and believe that our best days are behind us, or we can stop and look up. We can listen for the kids playing, we can watch a couple walk hand-in-hand, we can look at our neighbour fixing a car, and we can pass the coffee shop and see a dad sitting with his daughter. We can believe, and on good authority, that in the midst of the mess and complexity there is goodness here. There is hope and room for love to grow. The cynics do not have a corner on the market because we each have the ability to find the goodness and allow it to point us in a better way. Now, more than ever, we are learning to see ourselves, our neighbours, and our city in a new light, and I believe it is a good one.