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On Good and Evil
On Good and Evil
by Ross Robertson
On Good and Evil

I've realized recently that I'm not a fundamentally good person.

Before I go any further, I'm obliged to justify what this article will have to do with aikido. I am one of those who is inspired by the idea that aikido is a way to reconcile the world. I believe in aikido as a form of ethical pragmatism. It is a martial art, but it must deepen our ethical commitments. The duty of the warrior is to make the world a better place for all. It is not aikido if it is not a healing art.

It's not that we are burdened with a twofold duty, warrior and healer. Rather, it is that warrior-as-healer, one and the same, is where the aiki road leads.

The ethics that aikido can point us toward must be based in a system of viable self defense. I mean that in the conventional sense, but also in the sense that training should engender a more viable self. As we train, we hopefully get better. Getting better takes us in the direction of good.

Many will be satisfied with being good "at" something. Others acquire skills in order to become increasingly good -- to be a better human being.

We could say that a viable self is a good human being.

Now, here's the thing: a person is only good to the extent that they produce good effects on the world around them. For good to manifest, it has to go beyond what we carry in our hearts or what our intent is.

What this means is, none of us are inherently good people. There is no such thing. It's only what we do that is good or not. What is the effect? Are we effective? How so, how much?

Of course, I can be good to myself (good for me!), and that's viable. But my self-improvement is worthless to you if I do not produce a goodness that enriches you.

Eighteen months ago I met a woman on the brink of homelessness. At an earlier time in my life, I myself spent five years without fixed address, so I was in a position to empathize. We talked and bonded. I became fixated on finding ways to help her. I discussed the situation with Katie, and, magnificent woman that she is, we decided to take this stranger into our home.

It was clear that the woman needed a platform to get back on her feet, and we did our best to give her that. We gave her shelter and some food and her own account on our computer system. It was clear that she was badly damaged from childhood and marriage -- she was very forthright about this -- but otherwise she presented as bright, compassionate, and wholly worthwhile.

We arranged it so that her staying with us would cost us very little materially. We did not want to increase her burden. We brought her job applications and talked to people in our network.

For her part, she helped out around the house on a voluntary basis. We did not dictate terms for her living with us and did not wish to barter room and board for any sort of exchange. We only required that she make progress towards her own self-sufficiency and our routine lives to continue somewhat normally.

She and I became very close, and relations between her and Katie were warm. This was someone who could become an important lifelong friend and ally. It was easy for us to see through the difficulties and discover -- I can only say it this way -- her inherent goodness.

We were greatly encouraged when she was placed by her job advocates into a Microsoft Certification Program, and to see her throw herself into the studies. She completed the course and continued to study extremely hard to prepare for the exams.

And continued and continued and continued. Her dedication was impressive, but months came and went and for whatever reason, she was never convinced she was quite ready. The job search had largely gone by the wayside, and she never acted on any of the applications we brought her, despite her apparent gratitude. Eventually she took one test and produced one certificate of several needed. The remaining ones were hers for the taking. She was, if anything, over-prepared. She never got them.

We quarreled, of course. Other times we talked productively about how stuck she was, and there would be significant breakthroughs. Always there were encouraging signs that there would be improvement.

We knew we were being good. We only had to wait for the seeds to germinate.

At this point, you may be thinking this story will have a horrible ending, that she robbed us blind and spread vicious rumors about us. Some of our friends voiced such concerns, and kept asking when we were going to get rid of "that woman."

Nothing of the sort ever happened. She was a boon to the household, and a godsend when we needed her for housesitting during frequent travels. But I'm sure you've noticed my use of the past-tense, so you still shouldn't expect at happy ending.

After nearly a year and a half and no material progress, Katie and I had to face the hard truth that we were not helping her be able to help herself. We were doing our best to be good, but we were not producing good. The emotional strain had become enormous. She was being good to us in her own way, but she was not being good for us.

We all agreed the situation had become unhealthy (if in fact it had ever at any point really been healthy). Early on there seemed so much promise, and so much reason for optimism. And as I say, there were shining moments of stunning wholeness.

We were unable to keep her deep wounds from being infectious. Whatever healing was imparted to her was not only insufficient, but offset by damage being done to our own psyches. We all knew the situation had gone far past any level of supportability, and she had to move on whether she had a place to be or not.

Still, we gave her more time and we let her pick the time and manner of her leaving. Today, this morning, I took her to a street corner, dropped her off, and drove away.

I admit I feel profound anger, hurt, betrayal, and disappointment. More than that, I feel malice and ill will. I want her to suffer. I want her to fail.

This is not good.

We learn from our experiences, and part of her legacy to me is that I am not a good person. I tried to be, but it's clear that the effects of my efforts produced negligible goodness. Worse, it's entirely possible that our intervention may have forestalled a necessary crisis in her life which would have served to force her to learn to manage her own affairs. I can't say. I only know that neither society nor individuals should look away in the face of suffering.

Going forward, all I know is she said she has arranged a temporary stay in a woman's shelter. I don't know where, and it's none of my business. In all likelihood, she will be homeless and profoundly unprepared very soon.

I will also admit that in addition to the bile that has contaminated my heart, I feel a lingering love and anguished concern. Call it zanshin.

This is also not good.

I want to be good. I want to do good. I will persist in the endeavor. I will keep training, and I will get better.

However, I now have a renewed understanding about the limitations of our actions, what R. Kobayashi Sensei always called "range of effectiveness." I now know that even if we successfully radiate goodness, if it is not received then goodness does not convey.

My friends and those who are kindly disposed toward me will try to assure me that this was not my failure, but hers. There's something to that, but our lives were commingled and this was a joint project. We failed together, and I can't but take responsibility for my part.

I will take consolation in the fact that the world is full of healing agencies, and I can't afford to be so foolish as to carry the burden alone. There may be a future that is kind, where she is healed and happy and whole, and our efforts here may have set the stage for that. At the same time, I have to accept that she may not survive her present ordeal.

There is, if not exactly evil, an illness upon me now. My job for the present is to make sure it does not metastasize, while accepting the fact of it and learning to be at peace with this additional bit of darkness.

The malevolence that I hold is something real and comes from my authentic self. But it doesn't define all of me. I also truly want her to be well, to live and love and succeed and find happiness.

What I most want for her is to be good.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

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