Good Guys and Bad Guys

My four year old son and I were walking home from school as we always do - he on my shoulders as we weave through the tree branches hanging over the sidewalk - when he made a very clear decoration: “I’m a rules guy.”

“Oh,” I inquired, “what does that mean? Do you follow the rules?”

“Yes. I also make the rules.”  He grew a bit more animated as he shuffled around on my shoulders. I could see his arms waving in and out above his head as they darted through my periphery.  “I’m the rules guy. And I tell everyone the rules, and if they break the rules, they’re bad guys.” At this he nodded fervently enough to endanger his perch.

I settled him back on my shoulders and only partially feigned my surprise to get him to comment further. “Oh really? So what happens to the bad guys?”

“We fight them, because we’re the good guys,” he explained. I chuckled a bit at the burgeoning tautology of his world view but then he added, “and when we fight them, they die.”

There are times as a parent when, despite your rational nature, you panic. I spent the next few moments sputtering clarifying questions, making assertions about how he should never hit or hurt anyone, and failing desperately not to spin an innocent comment into something much larger. My son, helpful rules guy that he is, finally came to my rescue, “but after they die they get up and then some of them become good guys and some of the good guys become bad guys.” His little faced popped upside down into my view as he leaned far forward and looked down at me. “It’s like a video game.” Happy that he clarified the issue, he sat back up and began singing the theme to Star Wars while patting the rhythm on my skull.

I managed to hide my enormous sigh of relief in a paternal “Oh, sure, of course,” and regained my stride as we continued down the sidewalk. I was about to congratulate myself on not completely freaking out when he added his final statement on the matter for the day:

“But I’m never a bad guy. I’m always a good guy.”

In the many conversations we’ve shared on the subject since I’ve learned exactly how much he means that ‘never’. My son hated being a ‘bad guy’, hated being called a ‘bad guy’ even more, and up until recently would never play that role except with me. And only then if I was a bad guy too. I learned, and am still learning, that his world view cannot tolerate the concept of him being the one at fault. The one who is in trouble. I’ve seen him reject the notion with emphatic words, with tears streaming down his face, even with his hands over his ears to block out the possibility. He always had to be the good guy.

Such is the moral compass of a four year old calibrated - the only true north they know is their own identity. Shake that identity and it’s as if the world spins out of control.

For weeks after that initial conversation, my son and I would walk to the school in the morning and back in the afternoon stacked one on top of each other. He made ample use of his high horse to rain pearls of philosophical insights down on my head. In the months since I have learned all about bad guys and good guys. How they can change from one to the other (thank you Darth Vader), how they can be tricky and look like the other (“it’s like chameleon camouflage!”), and how they can even be in the same family (said while making suspicious eyes at me). But the most profound bit of bad guy/good guy rhetoric I heard was the definition of each.

Bad Guy (/bad/ /ɡī/) n. One who does bad stuff. Like hit people, or blow people up and stuff. They steal stuff too, or they hide in a bush and then when you get close they jump out and say “booty” and scare you so much! They’re very bad.

Good guy (/ɡo͝od/ /ɡī/) n. One who fights bad guys.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the latter definition is a wee bit shorter than the first. In his young eyes, the sole defining characteristic of a good guy is that they stop bad guys. Not that they do good things. Not that they have their own complex mythology around their power (sorry Yoda!). No, the purpose of the good guy is to be un-bad.

It’s the simplest merit badge to earn, I guess. All you have to do is stop evil.

If I’m honest, I’m struggling to come up with a better definition. Not for a lack of imagination, or moral philosophy, but due to the degree to which I believe the world agrees with my son. For many, these days it feels like most, being good isn’t about what you do. Being good is about who you oppose. Sing the song of as many unsung heroes as you like - the nurses, the teachers, the EMTs, but those tunes seem drowned out by the cacophony of celebration that arises whenever one of our own triumphs over an enemy force. Or perhaps that’s the only thing I’m listening to these days. Could be the world. Could be me. But it seems to be all around.

Good opposes bad. That’s what it does, Dad!

Hell, even firefighters are fighting the fire.

I can taste the ash in my mouth whenever I try to explain to my son the horrible consequences that we create when we define our morality by what it is wars against. We create a world that fears compromise. A world without trust in our fellow humans. A world that believes a war is coming, an inevitable conflict, and soon there will only be us and them. The survivors and the lost. The quick and the dead. How worried I am that such dread is acting tricky now. Camouflaging itself as a beacon of desperate hope and twisted celebration:

“Do not fear the great war which is to come! Nay, hasten it’s approach. In its passing will come our victory, and in that new world which is created all fighting shall be over. For once we have won, none of the enemy will remain. There will only be us. And we will all be good guys.”

The early morning twilights have been darker this winter. Clouded in gray fog banks that curl lazily across the dawning sun and blanket its color. My son on my shoulders, I pace my way down the sidewalk, weary foot in front of the other. He bobs his head away from the reaching rose bush, under the drooping live oaks, pointing to the hazy car lights gliding down the street. Step by step, morning by morning we make our way to school. Talking, observing, yawning with preparation. And when I am not so tired, or when he is curious, I strive to provide for him a new set of definitions for new sets of people he has yet to imagine into his philosophy. Builders. Healers. Workers. Explorers. Guides...because I would love for him to see that the world in which the good guys and bad guys fight was made by others. And it was made for so much more.