Monday over Coffee: "Renegade Goodwill"

Published September 12, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends on what you want to consider.
— David Foster Wallace

I had a couple of friends back in college who got a kick out of telling semi-credible tall tales about each other to unsuspecting acquaintances at parties. For instance, in conversation, one might point across the room to the other and suggest his friend's lifelong dream was to become a professional bowler. At the same time, the other guy might be in deep dialogue with someone else, noting that his friend over there calls square dances outside of town every weekend. The exchanges were always dryly delivered with just enough backstory for it all to seem plausible, or at the very least, not impossible.

How we go about judging what's possible, what's plausible, and what's not—both in general and about one another—is an interesting process, but Scripture gives us some guidance here. We're instructed that grace and goodwill aren't things to be calibrated to the truth about people. They're not to be doled out according to performance or preference, but rather freely offered. But this is a tall order. How might we become better at it?

In the novel Great Expectations, Charles Dickens' protagonist, Pip, works with John Wemmick, a bill collector whose job requires him to do some harsh things. Pip observes Wemmick has an "air of knowing something to everybody else's disadvantage" and develops a negative impression of him. However, one day Wemmick asks Pip to stay the weekend with him at his home. As they leave the office and then the city, Pip notices Wemmick's whole bearing changes. At Wemmick's home, Pip discovers his host cares for his elderly father, whom Wemmick kindly calls "Aged Parent" or more fondly still, "Aged P." Wemmick prepares a lovely dinner for all of them, then when he awakes, Pip hears Wemmick cleaning Pip's own boots. Next, Pip looks out the window to see Wemmick tending his garden with Aged P at his side. Pip later learns that Wemmick is engaged to marry the lovely Miss Skiffins, whom he refers to as the source of all joy in his life. Pip thought Wemmick was stern, cynical, and dull. Instead, he's genial, warm, and impressively interesting.

The writers of the long-running television sitcom Parks & Recreation seem to have taken up a similar theme, creating an echo of Mr. Wemmick in Garry Gergich, who works in the Pawnee Parks & Rec Department where the series is set. Garry appears to be a boring, bumbling, middle-aged man. All the other characters tease, even mock him. However, as the show unfolds over the course of several years, whenever one of the other characters is thrown into a situation with Garry alone, they're surprised to find him incredibly charming, agile, and interesting. Garry, it turns out, is a gifted pianist, an amateur inventor, a terrific chef, and a skilled artist. In one episode, he quietly creates a mural in an alcove of City Hall meticulously composed of tiny pictures of all of the town's citizens. Later, we discover he has a devoted wife (played by Christie Brinkley) and three beautiful daughters.

Finally, I commend to you author David Foster Wallace's commencement address to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College. I reread it at least once a year. It's that good. In it, Wallace submits that almost every minute of every day, we have a choice regarding whether to treat those we encounter charitably or not. We can proceed on our default setting, doling out our goodwill only to those we like and care about when it suits us, or we can decide to treat every sacred, created human being with what I'd call renegade goodwill. For instance, instead of assuming the worst of that driver who cut you off in traffic, Wallace proposes we seriously consider the possibility that he might be trying to get his injured son to the hospital. Maybe, in fact, it's you who's in his way. Perhaps that lady screaming at her kid in the checkout line isn't usually like this, but she's been up three nights in a row holding the hand of her husband who's dying from bone cancer. In the end, he humbly encourages us to consider being a little less arrogant about what we think we know about one another and consider what else might be plausible, or at least, not impossible. Creating such charitable backstories about everyone we encounter represents a lot of imaginative, even fictional work, but Jesus never said living out the Sermon on the Mount was an easy do-si-do.

God — May I offer a renegade brand of goodwill to all I encounter. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk