You do not have to be good, but you must not murder

I have these first two lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese, on my brain.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert,


I repeat the first line in my head, like a mantra.

‘You do not have to be good.’

The notion that I must be good is one I struggle to overcome.

It’s funny how when a celebrated person dies, people everywhere in the world of social media go out of their way to send condolences or to express their sorrow.

Mary Oliver was 83 years old. She’d had a reasonable innings as far as longevity is concerned and she herself talked of a level of acceptance of death that was exemplary.

But we, the living left behind, must incorporate the news of her death along with the deaths of all those other celebrities, the ones who lived lives beyond our reach except through the media and screen.

The ones who seem timeless. Their names pop up regularly, in books or film, in the news or we follow them hot with desire to know more, and imbue them with a timeless quality as if they are superstars who will never die.

And then they’re dead.

Jacqueline Rose wrote an essay on celebrities. She talked of how we adulate them and enjoy seeing our stars elevated, idealised.

But if they so much as make a mistake – as most do. They’re only human after all – somehow, we get pleasure from watching them fall.

Something to do with the degree to which their shame mitigates our shame.

Mary Oliver’s words might also speak to those celebrated people and others in positions of authority to let them know, that they too, do not have to be good.

At first, I thought Mary Oliver’s words were directed specifically towards women but then I told my husband about her death, this poem in particular, and he resonated to the notion as well.

 He too suffers from what he calls an inside ‘judge’, one who is forever telling him that whatever he does it’s not good enough.

This inner critic most of us recognise in one way or another.

How does the man who murdered the twenty-one-year-old student visitor from Israel in Bundoora last week feel?

What does his inner critic say?

Thoughts about this beautiful young woman dead at twenty one for no reason other than she got off a tram in Bundoora and he was there.

As far as we know he was a stranger to her. He chose her.

On Facebook, I follow Destroy the Joint’s listing of all the women in Australia who die at the hands of men, mainly at the hands of men who knew them, mainly at the hands of their partners, ex or current.

More than one woman murdered each week in Australia.

No wonder we women believe we have to be good, to keep ourselves safe. If not a partner then a stranger could pick upon us, more likely though only if we’re young and beautiful and fit some stereotype of a woman ‘who’s asking for it.’

Was the man who killed her, one of those involuntary celibates, the men who rail against the fact that no woman has chosen them for sex. These men hate all women who have deprived them of what they see as their God-given right, to have sex with a woman of their choosing.

That she should choose not to share her body with such a man inflames him more.

Such men are troubled, troubled in their deep and wounded narcissism which tells them they have the right to take the life of another because she has not given them what they want.

No wonder Mary Oliver urges us to get past this notion that we do not have to be good, even when there is such pressure on us as women to be so, in order to satisfy the cravings of men who might otherwise kill us.

If this is an extreme position, I intend it to be so. I intend to make the point that no one has the right to take another person’s life from them just because they’re offended, no matter how deeply, or in their minds how justifiably.

I feel such a depth of sorrow for this young woman from Israel and for her family.

She was on the phone to her sister in Israel just off the tram when the man struck and although I don’t yet know the full details, I understand it was a brutal attack.

What madness assailed this young man. It seems the police have found DNA traces on the clothes of the young man they’re questioning as I write. And if indeed he is charged and after due process found guilty, what madness assailed this young man to the point he saw fit to destroy a young woman’s life.

This idea that women must subjugate themselves to the desires of men is deeply embedded in the patriarchal, and before I continue on this rant any further, I want to write another take on how much we do not have to be good.

It comes in the form of Anthony Browne’s Piggybook. A children’s story.

 Mr Pigott lives in a nice house along with his two sons Simon and Patrick and his wife.

In this nice house, Mrs Pigott does everything. She cooks and cleans. She washes dishes and makes beds. The two boys and their father call to her to hurry up with their meals before and after they go out to their very important job, in the case of Mr Pigott, and in the case of the boys, their very important school. While Mrs Pigott, after she has made bed, washed dishes and prepared food, is the last to leave for her work.

One day when the boys come home from school, they find Mrs Pigott has gone, leaving only  a blunt message:

‘You are pigs.’

 Over the next several pages of this beautifully illustrated book, we watch father and sons morph into pigs who struggle to cook for themselves. The meals they cook taste awful, so they order take away.

They do not clean after themselves, or wash clothes or change the beds and in the end the place is turned into a pig sty. They have no food left and must scrabble round the floor for scraps.

Finally, Mrs Pigott strides through the front door, this time a towering woman who now has the respect of her husband and sons. They begin to help with the dishes, make the beds, clean and keep house while Mrs Pigott goes outside to fix the car.

And so ends the moral of this story, which challenges gender stereotypes and the unfairness of the distribution of labour, based on one’s assigned sex, but also simply based on the notion that one only has to be good, while others can do as they please until the one who has been so good, such a martyr to the family, says ‘no more’ and walks out on the job.

Then the rest are left to recognise their needs and struggle with their vulnerabilities.

In order for change to take place they must agree to share the load instead of expecting to stay forever more like a baby in her mother’s care.

I suspect in the mind of the young man who murdered, he was like a tyrannising enraged infant. Only trouble is, he was not an infant.

Infants are helpless and can be overcome. They cannot murder.

Grown adults of any shape size or description, when gripped in rage, out of their sense of injustice or of entitlement or of whatever else drove this man to murder, are not so easily stopped, not when their victim is taken by surprise and is physically weaker.

I weep for this young woman. I weep for all of us that we live in a world where this type of cruelty continues, still unchecked, because we have not yet tackled the inequalities of our society.

4 thoughts on “You do not have to be good, but you must not murder”

  1. I don’t know Mary Oliver. I saw reports of her death and that she’d been a poet but I never even looked her up to see what kind of stuff she’d written and if I’d missed out. Had you asked me who Mary Oliver was the day before I’d’ve hazarded a guess at a television chef and now I think about it I would’ve been mixing her up with Mary Berry. I don’t feel any kind of loss and if I’m being blunt her passing probably annoyed me more than anything because here’s yet another person I should’ve known about (apparently) and as usual I’m ignorant. Hell, when Bowie died I’d not even listened to his last six albums and I’d only heard the one before that once because one of my trainees gave me a tape of it for some reason and I felt obliged to. Celebrity is something you need to keep up with and I don’t. Bowie has his place in my life and I was genuinely sorry to hear of his passing but we’d parted company in the mid-nineties and the separation was an amicable one.

    I read ‘Wild Geese’ just now. It seems to me like a poem about how regret drags the eyes down so you miss the geese flying overhead and the chance to metaphorise about them. How good you have been throughout your life is only one method of mensuration and, as a subjective one, it’s far from being the best way to determine a person’s worth. I remember an episode of ‘Doctor Who’ where the twelfth doctor (Peter Capaldi if you’ve lost count) asks Clara, “Am I a good man?” and for some reason I wanted to give him a slap when he said that. A few moments of self-doubt may be fine when you’re five or six hundred but not when you’re over two thousand. Was I a good son? Am I good husband and father? Did I always do my best and even if I had (which I haven’t) would it have been good enough? Pah!

    I didn’t hear about the student in Bundoora and I certainly don’t follow any sites like Destroy the Joint. To be honest I barely scan the headline these days. As a child growing up I was told again and again I was not a part of “the world” and even though I gave up on the religion to live in the world I’ve still never felt a part of it, been that interested in it or felt it had much interest in me. It wearies me. I don’t understand it. I don’t really want to understand it. I do try not to do it any harm and I know that’s not the same as actively seeking opportunities to do good but, as I’ve intimated, being “good” (whatever “good” is) doesn’t matter to be as much as not being bad. I don’t need to be a good man but I’d be upset if you said I was a bad one.

    1. Of course you’re not a bad man, Jim. Mind, I’m wary of those two narrow categories, good and bad. We are all far more complex as human beings than these simple labels suggest. Still I suppose we need to find ways of motivating ourselves to behave in what I like to think of as helpful ways. Helpful to most people, rather than simply tp be good. You make yourself out as more and more reclusive these days, Jim. And fair enough. Life is pretty tough and the older we get, I reckon the tougher it can seem. Still I find many things in the world outside of me fascinating, for good and for ill.
      Thanks Jim.

  2. I really like that children’s story you summarize here. I had never heard of it. If anything is ever to change in our culture (in any country), I believe it has to start with the children. I have often wondered why these sweet innocent children…many boy children…grow up to harm others, esp women. I see news reports similar to the one you describe and know that there was a time this grown man was a small boy and what happened? What gets switched off or switched on to start the simmering of rage that one day explodes upon helpless victims? Along with the sexism that is learned from an early age. When do boys start feeling entitled? When does that start? I have a daughter and a son; both grown. I tried like hell to do my small part in shaping their childhoods in the right direction before launching them. It is certainly the most difficult job I have ever done. With the most riding on it.

    1. It is one of the hardest tasks of all, Oneletterup, this raising of children. But not everyone is as able to do so given their own experience of being parented, and there are lots of things in society that make life harder for people, depending on where you live. But what turns an ordinary child into an abuser is still a puzzle, though research suggests most of it has to do with a traumatic past. Thanks for responding here.

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