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Dirtbags in Paradise

Mary Davenport Davis
January 25, 2018

Have you been watching “The Good Place”? Now in its second season on NBC, it’s a nimble and lighthearted take on the afterlife that combines two of my favorite things, actress Kristen Bell and moral philosophy. Bell plays Eleanor, a woman who finds herself in a cheerful afterlife full of frozen yogurt called “The Good Place.” “You know how you feel when you see otters holding hands?” asks Michael, the archangelic “architect” of the neighborhood, which is ostensibly designed for people who have led the saintliest of lives. “That’s how you’re going to feel every day here.” There’s just one problem: Eleanor isn’t supposed to be there. Her earthly life was selfish, lonely and cold. She’s a dirtbag in paradise, drunkenly hoarding buffet shrimp in her bra and ineptly trying to pass for a good person. To help her learn to be good, she enlists the help of Chidi, a moral philosopher prone to anxiety-induced stomachaches.


Without giving away too many of the show’s many, many spoilers, it turns out that being a good person is a tricky business. What if you do good things for selfish reasons? Does that count? What if your motives are unselfish, but your limitations end up causing great suffering to the people who love you? What if you’re clearly terrible but also hilarious, like Jason Mendoza, a “pre-successful” DJ from Jacksonville (“Easily one of the top ten swamp cities in northeast Florida”) whose response to stress is to throw Molotov cocktails first and worry about consequences later? What I love about the show is that it both respects ethics as a real discipline (my moral philosophy professor friends adore it, especially the one from Jacksonville), yet also teases out the real quandaries of trying to live a good life.


The great gift of the show—well, my favorite part is Chidi’s attempt to write a “Hamilton”-inspired rap musical about philosophers (“My name is Kierkegaard and my writing is impeccable / Check out my teleological suspension of the ethical!”). But the second great gift of the show is its depiction of how people’s hearts, and behaviors, do change: over time, and through friendship. Eleanor’s selfishness fades as she learns to care for and trust others, and she begins to find herself sacrificing what she wants for their benefit. The demon whose only pleasure is in elaborate psychological torture learns what it is to have a friend he’s not willing to lose even to keep himself safe. Goodness turns out to be less a quality one possesses and more a gift one gains through relationship.


This year, led by Rita Powell and Simone Johns, a diverse group of staff members at Trinity have formed an Equity Committee. We have lunch together once a week, and we talk about our lives. We also talk about white supremacy culture, at Trinity, in Boston, in ourselves. We draw on the work of organizations such as Crossroads, the Trinity Boston Foundation, and the Dialogue Arts Project, to dive deeply into the justice and injustice of our communities, and to imagine what Trinity might look like as a truly anti-racist organization. I joined because I felt a responsibility to work against racism, but frankly, I expected it to be a huge bummer. Instead, it’s one of the highlights of my week. Just like on The Good Place, the miscellaneous people I come to work with every day have gone from faces in the crowd to friends. And it turns out that being a good person alone is really difficult, but simply trying to be a good friend makes things easier. With friends, you can face the injustices and selfishnesses in society and in yourself. With friends, you can imagine what a real heaven would look like—and try to create it on earth.


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