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Undoing Shoulds: 

Before Adam, Eve, and the Apple


Undoing shoulds:

Before Adam, Eve, and the Apple

Returning to the Garden of Eden

(before the snake)

After reading this introduction, 

you’ll be able to decide whether to continue...

Full disclosure: I’m still on probation after 3+ decades of ankle-bracelet detention in the HOGAB

Brief prelude:


Before I tell you about my decades-long incarceration inside the House the Good and Bad, what does it mean to live inside that house?


Living inside the House of Good and Bad (HOGAB), pronounced “hoe-gabh” 


This refers to our habit and addiction to see ourselves, others, and the world through the judgmental glasses of “shoulds” and "should nots." We see others, as well as ourselves, with these glasses. These judgmental glasses often express themselves in our thinking and speaking:


  • should and shouldn’t

  • good and bad

  • right and wrong

  • selfish and unselfish

  • fair and unfair

  • just and unjust

  • deserving and undeserving

  • worthy and unworthy

  • normal and weird, and more... 


The limitations of judgmental glasses


Not only do these glasses severely degrade our ability to assess better choices for ourselves and others, they also inflict many costs. These costs run deeper and are more pandemic than most realize. They include:


  • guilt

  • shame

  • blame

  • arrogance

  • resentment

  • resignation

  • defensiveness

  • impatience

  • poor health

  • bad relationships

  • shyness

  • loneliness

  • low self-esteem

  • lack of motivation

  • depression

  • jealousy

  • insensitivity

  • perfectionism

  • impatience

  • over promising

  • procrastination

  • bossiness

  • being disrespectful

  • feeling overwhelmed

  • feeling unworthy

  • feeling not good enough

  • feeling disrespected

  • feeling controlled

  • boredom

  • postponing real life into the future

  • being a victim, and more…

“I don’t believe there’s two sides to every story. It’s black and white. There’s right and wrong.”

—Joe Wurzelbacher (an American conservative activist and a HOGAB resident, 1973-)


Keep up the good fight, Joe! Do you think that will make you happy? Are you happy with your relationships with others?


“What is the American dream? The American dream is one big tent. One big tent. And on that big tent you have four basic promises: equal protection under the law, equal opportunity, equal access, and fair share.”

—Jesse Jackson (American civil rights activist, Baptist minister, politician, and another HOGAB occupant, 1941-)


Jesse, good to know that you are adept at using fuzzy words. You’ll be able to hoodwink more people that way. And, frankly, maybe it’s impossible to be a successful politician without some hoodwinking. I can appreciate your dilemma. 

“People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for: freedom, liberty and justice for all.”

—Colin Kaepernick (American football quarterback and HOGAB regular, 1987-)


Colin, are you training to be a politician?

Okay, now to share about my jail time in the HOGAB:

I gave some bad boys bloody noses.


I was deeply addicted to righteousness, especially as a child, teenager, and into my early 20s. I was the good guy, especially as I compared myself to the bully boys in the countryside school I attended in Flat Rock, South Carolina. At six years old, at someone’s birthday party, I fought with three different bad boys and gave each one a bloody nose. Their mothers were upset with me...but I was right and I knew it. I felt no guilt or remorse for hurting them. I enjoyed the juiciness of my righteous anger.

"There really is no difference between the bully and the victim. I would like to do a psychological autopsy on as many bullies and victims as do we understand what breeds hatred, what breeds anger?"

—Lady Gaga (American singer, songwriter, and actress, 1986-)


I don’t know enough about Lady Gaga’s fuller thoughts to say whether I would agree with her. However, I am certain about two things regarding the bullying I remembered: 


  • I am certain that my righteousness contributed to others continuing to bully me.

  • They felt they were justified in their behavior (they saw themselves as the good guys). Perhaps I was even a bully in few circumstances and just don’t remember it as such.

I turned righteousness against myself


Not only was I righteous with others, I was also righteous with myself. When I was eleven, one night, alone in my bed, I accidentally rubbed up against the joys of masturbation. Immediately after my first super-amazing orgasm, I remembered the “man-to-man” conversation I’d had with my father six months earlier. In that very serious talk, he warned me that masturbation was bad and good boys didn’t do that. At the time, I didn’t fully know what masturbation was or how great it felt. So I thought to myself, “Well, of course, I won’t do that because I’m a good boy.” After that first time, I solemnly promised myself, “I will never do that again.”


I was persistent in making and breaking my promises


That promise lasted two days. I jerked off again. And again. It was soooooo good! I felt guilty. I made a new promise. “I must be a good boy!” This two-day cycle of masturbation, self-criticism, and a new promise, continued unabated until the summer of 1964, when I turned 20. My only solace during those nine years was that, by feeling guilty, I was proving to myself that I was a good guy. In my mind, only a bad guy would not feel guilty about masturbating.

“My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”

—Franz Kafka (German-speaking existentialist novelist and short story writer, 1883-1924)


Really, Franz?!

Two books helped me let go of the righteousness against myself (at least regarding sex)


In the summer of 1964 I was on sabbatical from college, when I stumbled upon two books: "Sexuality in the Human Male" and "Sexuality in the Human Female" by Alfred Kinsey. I learned that masturbation was healthy and normal and that all the arguments against it were bogus. From that point, I no longer felt guilty about masturbating. Even though I managed to escape this particular guilt, I was still firmly ensconced inside the HOGAB, ready for guilt to rear its ugly head about something else at any time.


“Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone you love.”

—Woody Allen (American director, writer, actor, and comedian, 1935-)

You can always find someone to be on your side as a fellow victim (or victim sympathizer)


At 19 years old, I discovered Ayn Rand. I latched onto her highly contemptuous attitude towards others whom she dubbed the “second-handers” and the “altruists.” I saw myself as a kindred victim.


Note: I still think Ayn Rand was insightful regarding several fundamental ideas. What was toxic for me was that I aligned with her righteousness towards the many who disagreed with her.


No longer under house arrest…


I continued to wear the glasses of good and bad, right and wrong. Only in my mid 20s did I take the first baby steps in becoming aware that I was wearing colored glasses and that what I thought I was seeing was not reality itself. Suspecting that I was wearing colored glasses, I then began to question the validity and helpfulness of those glasses. 


If I had to identify a single turning point where I was set free from house arrest and put on probation, it would have been in 1975, during a weekend Intensive led by Dr. Nathaniel Branden along with 200 other participants in a New York City hotel ballroom. That life-changing process dissolved all the chronic blame I had held towards my father (leaving only compassion). It also began to shift my life context from “life is so hard” to “life is my playground.”

Always on the path…


Today, after years of further exploration, I am far along the path of recovery, even though I still feel the pull of that addiction from time to time (perhaps even fueled by my DNA). And, I am clear and consistent about my path on this life-long journey of living and playing outside the House of Righteousness.


Perhaps we could start a twelve-step program, where the attendees introduce themselves with, "Hi, I'm John. I'm still on probation from living in the HOGAB." 

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

—Buddha (563 B.C.E.-483 B.C.E.)


“A villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”

—Chris Colfer (American actor, singer, and author, 1990-)


Criminals are more moral and kinder (according to them)

How did 85 prisoners, from ages 18 to 34, jailed for acts of violence and robbery and incarcerated in South East England, rank themselves about their sociability? In an anonymous survey the prisoners ranked themselves as more moral, kinder to others, more self-controlled, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest than the average member of the English population. 

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.”

—Rumi (13th-century Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic, 1207-1241)


“Imagine there's no countries, / It isn't hard to do. / Nothing to kill or die for, / And no religion, too. / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace.”

—John Lennon (musician, 1940-1980)

My mother incurred a life of suffering by living in the HOGAB


She had no idea that anything existed outside that house. She never knew she was wearing good-bad colored glasses. She thought she was seeing things "just the way they are."

My mother was addicted to persistence


Even though she suspected within the first two days of her marriage that she had made a mistake in marrying my father, she believed persistence was good and giving up was bad…so she stayed married 41 years to a man she neither respected nor loved.


Guilt and blame (two cornerstones of the HOGAB) kept my mother in jail


She was going to leave my father in 1979, but her mother (who also lived in the HOGAB) said to her, “You can’t leave him, Dorothy. He needs you.” From wanting to avoid her mother’s blame, she endured five more years with my father until, out of absolute desperation, she left him in 1984.

By living in the HOGAB (which lionizes persistence and unselfishness) my mother had been unable to see and act on making the best choices for herself.


Every time I talked with my mother after she left my father, she exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell me how great life was going to be without him?!” The only way she was able to avoid guilt after she left him was to maintain her righteousness against him by remembering all the “bad things” he did to her.

“Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence.”

—Colin Powell (American statesman and a retired four-star general in the United States Army, 1937-)


Come on, Colin! Persistence can be great. But giving up can be just as great and can often support one’s ultimate success (and ongoing happiness) more than persistence, depending upon the circumstance. You’re trying to tell us that success is only possible by using only the leg of persistence, and by not using the other leg of giving up?! We need both legs together to move happily and successfully through life.

“You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

—Kenny Rogers in The Gambler (American singer, songwriter, actor, record producer, and entrepreneur, 1938-)


Indeed, Kenny. Persistence can be great. And quitting can be just as great. Choose either wisely and then celebrate your choice. My mother and brother had the right idea. When my brother decided to divorce his first wife, he and my mother went out to dinner to celebrate.

Do you live in the House of Good and Bad?


“I am in politics because of the conflict between good and evil, and I believe that in the end good will triumph.”

—Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, 1925-2013)


How do you know you’re on the “good side,” Margaret? Those who oppose you believe that you are on the “bad side.” And the winners, whoever they may turn out to be, always think they were on the “good side.” Moreover, the winning side gets to write the history books, claiming that the “good side” won, whether it was your “good side.” 


Are you praising or blaming Margaret? Do you think she was on the “good side” or the “bad side”? Regardless of which side you think she was on, you are also a resident of the HOGAB.

“This is a struggle of good and evil. And we’re the good.”

—Howard Dean (former Vermont governor and one-time presidential candidate, 1948-)


Howard, does that mean that anyone you struggle against is bad?

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.” 

—Robert Frost (American poet, 1874-1963)


Robert, thank you for capturing that quintessential angst felt by almost all of us, when we stop long enough to be quiet and be honest with ourselves—about what life feels like when we live in the House of Good and Bad. You are speaking for all of us whose lives and identities are dominated by our Next and who show little respect or concern for what our Now wants and needs.


To which of these questions do you answer “yes”? 


  • Do you ever blame others? Do you ever feel like you’re a victim? Do you ever resent others? Do you ever feel taken advantage of?

  • Do you blame others for blaming or getting angry with you? 

  • Do you ever feel guilty or blame yourself?

  • Do you ever feel defensive?

  • Are you reluctant to set and maintain boundaries with others? Do you make requests for what you want? Do you say “no” when you want to say “no”?

  • Do you think you or anyone else should be different from the way you are or they are?

  • Does anyone ever disappoint you or betray you?

  • Do you feel entitled to anything? 

  • Do you consider any type of work to be demeaning?

  • Do you ever feel pushed or pressured by others?

  • Are you ever disappointed with yourself?

  • Do you ever expect others to not have expectations of you?

  • Do you ever get discouraged?

  • Do you regret or blame yourself for anything in your past?

  • Do you ever feel that life is unfair? Do you feel that you or others are treated unfairly?

  • Do you feel that life is hard or difficult?

  • Are you shy? Are you self-conscious with others? Do you avoid public speaking?

  • Do you avoid asking others what they like about you and what they dislike about you?

  • Do you avoid really listening to others and trying to understand them?

  • Do you worry about anything? Do you often feel stress or pressure?

  • Do you ever compare yourself negatively to others? Do you ever compare yourself negatively to how you were previously in your life? Do you compare yourself negatively to where you think you should be in your life at this time?

  • Do you ever feel trapped, without a sense of freedom?

  • Do you feel that you have something to prove?

  • Do you distrust others?

  • Do you feel misunderstood by others?

  • Are you a perfectionist?

  • Do you try to change others?

  • Do you feel controlled by others?

  • Do you think you should improve?

  • Do you ever feel like you’re not enough or not doing enough?

  • Do you want to be rescued by someone? Do you feel that others need rescuing?

  • Do you use your conscience to tell you whether you’re doing the “right thing” or the “wrong thing”?

  • When you read, watch, or listen to the news, do you end up blaming someone or some group?

How many of the above questions did you answer “yes” to?


I have refrained from defining some of the above words for which you and I may attach different meanings. Nevertheless, if you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, you’re likely spending at least some time (jail time) in the House of Good and Bad.


Full disclosure: On occasion I will say “yes” to one or more of the above questions.

If you dismantled your HOGAB, would you still be a “good” guy?


Or would you be a narcissist or psychopath? Would you be amoral, selfish, or self-indulgent?


“Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher, 1821-1881)


“If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky


Fyodor, you certainly believe that terrible things will happen if we dismantle the HOGAB.

“Inside each of us, there is the seed of both good and evil. It’s a constant struggle as to which one will win. And one cannot exist without the other.”

—Eric Burdon (English singer-songwriter and actor, 1941-)

Without guilt and shame or the threat of them, would you (and others) do terrible things? Many believe so.

“I’m just going to say it: I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behavior. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done–or failed to do–with our personal values.”

—Dr. Brene Brown (research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, 1965-)

“Guilt, long blamed by comedians as well as therapists for countless cases of emotional misery and psychological crippling, is being increasingly viewed as a valuable and uniquely human feeling that is essential to social order, moral behavior and ultimately the survival of the species.”

—Jane Brody (American author on science and nutrition topics, 1941-)


Jane and Brene think people would run amok and do bad things if they never felt guilt? What do you think?

“Personally, I think I've got split personalities, and I may need a psychiatrist. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Seriously. I'm serious about this.”

—Paul Pierce (American retired professional basketball player, 1977-)


Paul, if you got your Now, Next, Oneself, and Others all on the same page, your Jekyll and Hyde would be friends and mutually supportive.

Without trying to be a better person, would anything improve in your life?


“If you try to be the best you, the self-improvement and confidence departments are going to get a serious boost. After all, if you are trying to be the best you, you are improving in some fashion, and this can really build one’s confidence.”

—Kevin Harrington (American entrepreneur and business executive, 1956-)

Without knowing what is good and bad, how can you be a good person and protect yourself from evil?

“The path to holiness does not involve wrestling with some abstract boogeyman, but involves a ‘constant struggle against the devil, the prince of evil.’ We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would leave us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.”

—Pope Francis (266th and current Pope and sovereign of the Vatican City State, 1936-)


The Pope perpetuates (and exacerbates) the condition that Adam and Eve fell into when they ate the apple?


Many believe that religions instill good moral values (especially those who are religious). Yet, the result could be the opposite. Religious doctrines typically promote a stronger sense of “shoulds,” both for oneself and for others, aggravating both internal and external conflicts. Some scientific studies suggest that religious doctrines encourage bad behavior. Check out this study: Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds.

If we have no standard of good and bad, right and wrong, how can we ever agree? How could we ever enforce what we know to be good? How could we prevent others from just being bad? Even though the HOGAB has a lot of problems, won’t we be worse off it we discard it entirely (like throwing out the baby with the bath water)?

“Who would you be without your morals?  Would you suddenly turn into an evil fire-breathing dragon of inhumane proportion lacking remorse and growling some more?  Would you quickly try to latch onto some other strategy to stay afloat in some safe sea of goodness?  Would you run fast to the nearest exorcist?”

—Andrea Matthews (American psychotherapist, a writer and a speaker)

If we thought everything was already perfect, why would we do anything to make things better?

“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ’Til your good is better and your better is best.”

—St. Jerome (4th century priest, confessor, theologian, and historian, 327-420)


Many great thinkers support the idea of living in the HOGAB. The above questions deserve consideration.


I have explored the answers to these questions over a lifetime. Stay tuned by clicking this link:

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