Jul 11, 2016

That Infinite Well of Goodness

Even though I lived four years in Santa Barbara, California, as well as six years of childhood and five of my most recent years in San Jose—a short drive away from Santa Cruz—I had never surfed. Having snowboarded half my life, being drawn to the exhilaration of gliding across a snowy mountainside; for some reason I hesitated to introduce such passion to glimmering ocean waves. The lack of initiative was mostly rooted in fear, I think—in uncertainty. Fear so often stalks the unknown. The shadowed depths of the ocean, the wildlife dwelling within, and my sense of helplessness in it—that Mankind was created for land—had perhaps dampened my ambition.

It was time to face such a fear, to become familiar with the unfamiliar—to broaden the potential for adventure.

It would begin on the shore of Pacifica, a leisurely town nestled on the western coast of the San Francisco Peninsula. I would not be venturing out alone.

* * *

Sometimes I pretend to be an academic.

For example, a week ago I spent five hours studying the word goodness, which was only an introduction, really. Illuminated by many colors, it is a difficult word to concisely define. Still, I was determined to at least peek beneath the surface.

Disclaimer: I was and still am wary of letting the beautiful and somewhat subjective gift of a word drown in objectivity. Therefore, more than any technical definition I can offer, I hope the heart of the pursuit recounted here brightens a way toward fuller understanding.

A Definition
Aside from connecting it to the root word, good, the New Oxford American Dictionary identifies the synonyms of goodness as “decency, excellence, friendliness, generosity, good will, grace, honesty, integrity, kindness, mercy . . .” Used as an adjective, noun, and adverb, good is defined as moral virtue, especially in helping others; giving pleasure (enjoyable or satisfying); attractive (pleasant to look at); a restoration from damage; or fulfillment of a promise.

Thank you for a kaleidoscope of a definition, New Oxford American Dictionary.

As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am interested in noting how a word is used in the Bible. There are as many variations in the Hebrew and Greek lexicons of the Old and New Testaments as there are with the English translations. The Hebrew term, tôwb, the one most commonly translated as good, connotes beauty in the widest sense, but also suggests “better, bountiful, cheerful, at ease; graciously joyful, kindly, loving, merry; pleasure, precious, prosperous, ready, sweet, wealth, welfare . . .” For example,

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31a). “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8)! “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble” (Nahum 1:7a).

Intrinsic & Extrinsic
In the Greek New Testament, two root words are most often translated as good. The first, agathǒs, essentially means intrinsically good (good in nature). For example,

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good” (Luke 6:45a), the thought of which is expanded in Galatians 5:22-23a: “But the fruit of the [Holy] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” “[God] who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6), which can be connected to Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (8:28); “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2); and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).

The second Greek root word, kalǒs, is also often used, which principally refers to an outward sign of an inward good (e.g. beautiful by appearance). For example, Jesus said,

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27b-28). “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Or as Paul wrote, “But as for you, O man of God . . . Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith” (I Timothy 6:11-12a).

In a way, goodness is all that is inherently beautiful, whether tangible or intangible. And according to my Faith, its prime mover is God.

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.
—William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

* * *

One can only learn so much about surfing on dry land, even with a friend or surf instructor (a.k.a. “Smurf Sensei”) as a guide. Therefore, snug in a wetsuit with a foam board grasped more confidently than I felt, it was time to step into the waves to practice what had been taught on shore.

The waves of Pacifica State Beach are relatively tender tutors. To help me focus on the most difficult aspect of surfing—the stand—Smurf Sensei held the back of my board while I crawled onto it amidst churning waist-deep surf. The most exhausting aspect of the process would not be falling off the board in failed attempts to stand so much as rising from the water only to be slammed under and off balance again and again right after. I felt as graceful as a turkey, surprised at how awkward it was to just center my ribs while lying on the board.

It was not long, however, before I managed to stand and ride my first small wave. And then another.

Conscious of my limits, however, I eventually surrendered to the need for a break on the unmoving sun-warmed beach. Meanwhile, Smurf Sensei took her short board out to model what is possible with happy years of experience.

The learning process often draws the most energy from a person. In kinesthetic learning, for example, there is usually an overabundance of body tension with each movement as muscle memory and balance are sharpened for the specific action. I was tired, and knew I would be sore later, but was also filled with the vigor of having entered a new sea of possibilities. So I soon retrieved the foam board and paddled solo toward the larger waves.

* * *

An Infinite Well
Goodness is transcendent, an extravagant aspect or gift of growing in the Truth. “You can never have too much goodness,” a friend texted in a conversation. “That’s the stuff that also inspires creative work.” It helps light the journey. Martin Luther wrote,

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” (“Defense of All the Articles”)

It was the aforementioned text conversation that first nurtured this focused meditation on goodness. I had recommended a particular musician to my friend as a way to “add to that infinite well of goodness at the center of our hearts.” Thinking about it further, I later wrote, “I think by ‘infinite well’ I mean ‘infinite capacity to receive and ultimately draw from goodness.’”

I appreciate how she responded: “I like ‘infinite well’ it’s hearty, like a direct streamline. . . . we as souls have infinite access to our well but it’s common in our humanness to constrict the flow. . . . and even ‘evil’ or acts of ‘evil’ stem from the root of confusion, not knowing what is real . . . Truth.”

Later that night, as I considered the common tension felt between worshiping and being intimate with God who is both good (e.g. loving, merciful) and just (e.g. a holy judge)[1], I wondered if justice is necessary because we are all at some point collaborators with evil, willfully or not. The term evil is a somewhat complex term, which I will not delve into here. For now, I suggest that it is confusion contaminated with malice. Or that evil is that which distracts or disrupts a person or people from receiving, drawing from, and therefore extending goodness. That fear may be one of the most entrenching symptoms of confusion.

Hallelujah, such fear can be overcome:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21agathǒs, intrinsically good). “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came . . . Jesus Christ . . . And the [Holy] Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (I John 5:4-6). “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

J.R.R. Tolkien writes, “In the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (The Return of the King).

* * *

The ocean is a wonderful element we get the opportunity to play with. It’s pretty magical when you allow yourself to just be with it. It has a way of awakening one’s soul.
—Smurf Sensei

I did not catch any of the larger waves that first day, but I did realize that the well of my heart was deepening. Even just sitting on the foam board, swaying with the waves as they rolled faithfully by, I finally understood the allure—how much goodness could be shared through something as uncomplicated as surfing.

I seized the opportunity to return the next morning.

This time Smurf Sensei and I would head out together. There would be no more lessons on the beach, only that which can be gained from actually going out and trying.

Fear had not departed entirely, however.

Insulated by our wetsuits, boards at hand, Smurf Sensei and I were about to step into the water when two other surfers stopped us. “Hey, we just saw a great white shark jump out of the water down that way,” one said, pointing northward about a quarter mile to where the cove curved westward.

After a brief interchange, Smurf Sensei thanked them and looked at me with brows raised questioningly. 

“What do you think?” I asked.

Gazing out to the cluster of other surfers in the water perpendicular to our position, and considering the relatively shallow depths where the waves were breaking, she thought we would be fine. I trusted her experience over my uncertainty.

This was it: another opportunity to face the unknown—to swim with fear.

Reinforced by a shark presentation at Monterey Bay Aquarium the Sunday before[2]—that sharks are productive members of the oceanic ecosystem—and the knowledge that many surfers have been in the vicinity of great white sharks without problem, I was resolved to not let a mild apprehension prevent me from drawing further from the well of goodness. That is not to say, however, that I did not occasionally scan the water for a sinister shadow or dorsal fin.

Paddling past the breakers, sitting restfully on the board, and even managing to ride a couple waves that day, I was reminded of the delicate balance of nature: that while it is dangerous, not to be underestimated with haughtiness, it is also immensely good. It reflects God’s order, His beauty.

Like in my relationship with God, I have spent years progressively reorienting false perspectives—such as the uncertainty elicited by a desert, forest, or mountain wilderness. I am grateful to have at last begun to do so with the ocean. I still have much to learn and overcome, and believe it will always be so; but am excited to keep pursuing the healing, courage, and inspiration that can nourish the soul when fears are overcome, when beauty is allowed to pour in. Perspective is widened from it. The heart is deepened, enlarging its capacity to hold and share the infinite divine love that desires to overflow to every heart in the world. Soli deo gloria.

May we all learn to live with more joyful resolve; and may we laugh with anticipation for other example of goodness yet to be revealed and celebrated.

If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don't bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he's a good man.
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

[1] For more on that tension between good and just, note: “The Damage of ‘Trust God’”.
[2] There are curious statistics about shark attacks. For example, I am more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by a shark. Or to die by the flu. Or to be injured by a toilet. (http://natgeotv.com/ca/human-shark-bait/facts. Accessed 7/6/2016).

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