Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; Promises, Promises

This episode uses the frame of Connie is writing a letter to her friend. Chris (the annoying intro lady) informs us that she said she doesn’t mind if we listen in, which raises all kinds of questions. Are we normally eavesdropping on events in Odyssey without anyone’s consent? How are we hearing the portions where Connie’s narration gives way to live dialog? Why is Connie choosing to read the letter to us, rather than tell us directly? Is this some coded message, like River’s letters to Simon on Firefly?

Okay, enough of that. Connie starts explaining how Whit is Christian, but you know, not in an annoying way.

“Now, I know what you’re thinking, but before you jump to any conclusions, he doesn’t hang around airports or shave his head or anything like that.”

I swear, it took me the longest time to figure out she was referring to Hare Krishnas. To be honest, when you’re talking about a small Midwestern town guy called Mr. Whitaker, most people won’t think he’s part of a big city Hindu sect. If they are assuming he’s the annoying brand of religious, what comes to mind is probably something more like…

“He just takes being a Christian very seriously. So when you get into a conversation with him, you can pretty much take for granted that the Bible’s gonna pop up sooner or later.”

That.

Connie gives an example of how Whit just wouldn’t let her talk about the news without including God. She hears about an attack in the Middle East and wonders why someone would do that. He says people have sinned since Adam and Eve. She wishes she could do something about it. He says he is, he’s going to pray. And, finally getting that Whit won’t let sin and religion go, Connie starts to debate him on whether humans are fundamentally good or evil.

Connie thinks that people are actually mostly good deep down. Sure, they mess up sometime, but all it takes to tap into that good nature is to really commit to it. Whit thinks that if you tap deep down, all you’ll find is original sin.

Seeing that there’s no way to solve this problem with debate, she decides to prove him wrong by challenging herself to treat everyone with patience for a month. She writes this down as a promise, which is where the title comes up. Whit admires her intention but is not shy about telling her how skeptical he is. For the kindly old man he’s supposed to be, he’s actually very discouraging towards her, all because if she pulls it off she disproves his need for twenty-four seven religion.

Initially, Connie does quite well, and feels great. But after a few days she loses her temper when some kids at work can’t solve a riddle that she thinks is easy. She feels terrible for hurting their kids’ feelings. Worse, she has just proven to herself that she’s rotten and bad inside, despite her best intentions. And just in case she eventually realizes that there are more possibilities than her idealism and Whit’s theory of her filthy godless soul, Whit makes sure to rub her face in it.

“You believe that deep down everybody is good, and if we all just somehow tap into that inner goodness we can make the world a whole lot nicer. Well I’m sorry, but that’s just not the case. The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. that’s why I just kinda shake my head and laugh when someone tells me they’ve made a promise to be a better person. That’s like treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease… We have to let God renew our mind. He has to change us on the inside before results start showing on the outside.

The episode ends with Connie telling her friend how wise Whit is, and how this small town is full of lovely caring people who are so unlike the ones she was used to in LA… in brief she isn’t religious yet, but she’s sniffing at the Kool-Aid with interest.

Listen, Whit, I know you’re just a fictional character but right now you’re synechdocheing the crap out of a particularly toxic part of my childhood, so you’re gonna sit there and listen to a rant. Yeah, I just used synechdoche as a verb. Shit got real, motherfucker.

I hate the whole message of how filthy we are, because once, I believed it. I thought I was deeply tainted and needed to be saved, even though I was honestly a pretty good kid. I had my bad moments, but I really tried to be good, and a lot of the time I was. The thing about this message is that when I was bad, it felt like the end of the world, and when I was good, it felt like the mere fact that I was noticing my own goodness was just proof that I was prideful, and pride was the worst sin. It even meant that when I was in church and it was the official bow our heads and repent our sins, if I couldn’t think of anything I felt terrible about, and I was scared. I was scared that I would not repent sincerely enough, I’d die with sins marking me and I’d go to hell.

The feeling of worthlessness seeped deep into me and even as an atheist I’m still unlearning that feeling. I know many ex-fundies fighting that same battle, whether atheist or just liberal Christian. This is the irony of God’s love, as you teach it, Mr. Whitaker. We can never truly feel it, because if we do not hate our unlovable selves we are unworthy of it.

You make a bold claim in this episode. You say you can prove original sin by taking a look at the kids in your store.

“I don’t have to tell any of them how to misbehave. They already know that. But I sure do have to teach them how to be good.”

Since I was twelve I’ve been a babysitter and volunteer at Bible schools, and these past five years I worked in an elementary school. What I see is both the best and worst of human nature; acts of manipulation and impulsive narcissism abound, but you’ll also see the most spontaneous kindness and uninhibited love imaginable. Often you’ll see both from the same kid. On the same day. Whether you’re looking to prove that human nature is essentially bad or essentially good, children won’t help either case.

And Whit, you’re pretty lucky in the kids you are dealing with. As I said, I work at a school. Specifically, I work in special ed, and I spend a lot of time with kids who have severe behavioral problems. These kids usually have both genuine medical problems and crappy home lives; nature and nurture are teaming up to screw with them. Whit, you think you see naughty kids, but you would lose it if a child bit you. I went through a year with four biters. “Pretty good day, only got nipped at once” was a normal and unironic thing for me to say. And unlike you, Whit, I can’t just moan about original sin. I actually have to try to understand ALL my kids. I have to see them as complex people instead of projects to convert.

And you know what I see? Needs. Wants. Lack of knowledge about how to deal with them. This kid tantrums because it makes people offer him things until he gets what he wants. This kid bites because her world is overwhelming and confusing, but aggression creates a situation that she can control. This kid hits because afterwards we chase him, and he doesn’t know how else to say “play with me.” You’re wrong that I don’t have to teach kids to misbehave; often I realize that’s exactly what I’m doing, unintentionally. For example, if I pay attention to kids when they are being disruptive and don’t interact any other time, I am teaching them that making trouble is the best way to create a relationship. 90% of my job isn’t punishing or lecturing, but teaching positive skills to replace those negative behaviors. It works, even with the biters.

So that’s what I think is at the root of human nature; not good, not evil, just the desire to survive another day. Most goodness is just knowing how to do that without hurting anyone else, and sometimes even helping others out. Badness is not doing that.

Also, Whit, I’m working with this one four year old who, despite severe communication issues, is incredibly sweet, obedient, good-natured, even pretty responsible. Easily, he’s the nicest kid I’ve worked with in ages. He’s Hindu. So yeah, you’re wrong about all the things.

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