Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. His "Sharp Edges" column appears every Saturday in the print edition of The Penticton Herald.

Years ago, I started writing a summary of the good things and bad things that had happened that year.

At first, I had little difficulty separating good from bad. My two lists – good and bad – bore little connection to each other.

But as time passed, I discovered that different aspects of the same situations were showing up in both lists.

This year, the overlap is almost total. Bad things occurred, certainly, but part of each parcel included good things. And vice versa. Like Frank Sinatra singing about love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other.

Take Donald Trump. Please. (A line borrowed from stand-up comedy.)

He’s arrogant, biased, bigoted, deluded, despicable, disgusting, egotistical, ignorant, illiterate, insensitive, prejudiced, selfish, stupid, uninformed, venomous, wilful, and just plain wrong.

Have I been too kind to him?

If there were any doubt, he has shown his true colours since his electoral defeat. He has acted like a pit viper someone stepped on. He’s lethal; he lashes out; he wants to make everyone who humiliated him suffer.

We saw the effects on Wednesday, when his fanatic followers stormed the Capitol.

How can his behaviour be a “good thing”?

Easy – he proved I was right about him, all along. (I never said that the good and bad had to be equal, only that they were intertwined.)

It’s always nice to be proved right.

2020 will certainly be remembered as the year of the pandemic. COVID-19 has dominated the news ever since it was identified in Wuhan, back in January, up to the arrival of the first vaccines, shortly before Christmas. In the U.S. alone, it has caused three times as many deaths – even allowing that some deaths blamed on COVID-19 would have happened anyway -- as all the country’s military casualties since the Second World War.

It has closed businesses, disrupted travel, damaged relationships, blanked professional sports, shut down worship services, and increased rates of suicide and abuse.

But on the other side, corporations have learned that they don’t have to imprison staff in cubicles to get work done. Parents have had more time with young children (some may not call that a good thing).

Scientists have worked across national boundaries to develop vaccines in record time.

Churches have proved astonishingly innovative at developing online worship; clergy and staff have discovered skills they never knew they had.

Front-line health-care workers have demonstrated heroism, every day.

Take-out food services have boomed. So have retail sales, for stuff like guns and toilet paper.

Sports leagues have found ways for the game to go on, even without stadiums full of fans.

Government programs to reduce harm have forced economists to question unquestionable dogmas.

And amorous individuals have found better ways of getting to know someone than speed dating.

At a personal level, 2020 will always be the year my wife died. Nothing will change that (certainly not speed dating). She died the night before B.C. imposed lock-down COVID-19 restrictions.

It was, as I have written before, the loneliest that I have ever been.

But those final months, as I have also written, were a blessing. Any petty differences we had left, after 60 years of marriage, just evaporated.

And life after her death has been lightened by countless acts of kindness.

A young woman, a total stranger, volunteered as a pen pal.

My daughter became my friend.

I got a delightful dog for company.

And I am learning, slowly, that living alone is not as bad as I had feared. There is pleasure in learning to cook, to knit, to make my own choices.

The whole experience reinforces my conviction that good and bad are subjective labels, artificial concepts for our minds to play with.

There’s no objective thing as “good.” Or bad. What’s good for me may be bad for you. Tourists pray for sunshine, while farmers pray for rain.

Good is not simply the opposite of bad. Defining promiscuity as bad doesn’t make celibacy good. If debt is bad, letting poor people suffer isn’t good.

Rejecting one extreme doesn’t mean going to the other extreme.

Good and bad both lie somewhere on a continuum between the extremes of too much and too little.

No single point, no single situation, defines “good.” Rather, we recognize, instinctively, when something gets taken too far. Physical intimacy becomes abuse or exploitation. Social lubricants become addictions. Strong leadership turns into tyranny, fascism.

Any extreme becomes harmful, damaging. Not good.

And if 2020 helps more of us see that truth, it can’t have been all bad.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journaist.

Email: rewrite@shaw.ca