Was Walter White a Good Person?
Process Theology and Breaking Bad
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And don't read at all, if you haven't seen the finale.
Was Walt a good person?
In the end Walt was alive but not entirely good. He was satisfied but selfish. He was the center of his universe.
That's what Linda Holmes, columnist for NPR, proposes in the column on the right. She wishes Walt had really surrendered to the spirit of creative transformation at work in the world, voluntarily or involuntarily. In order to experience redemption or grace, she says, he needed to be stripped of his power: but he was hanging on all the way. If you don't have time to read her column, here's the gist:
If I could have believed in any redemption for Walt, it would have been through surrender, through being stripped of power (or giving it up voluntarily) and choosing grace then.
If she is right, then Walt remained a somewhat typical American: narcissistic, self-preoccupied, overly individualistic, self-entitled, and loyal to no one except his family and maybe Jessie.
Harmony and Intensity
Surely there is truth in what she says; but let's add that, in the end, Walt's aliveness had a beauty of its own. We all know what it is like to feel unalive: that is, to have lives that are peaceful, or efficient, or effective, or harmonious, but not intense enough.
At least this is what we process theologians believe. We think that we are all are born with an inwardly felt desire for two subjective states that can be combined: harmony and intensity. Bear with me.
Harmony is a feeling of at-oneness or rapport with others. It can be enjoyed in relations with friends, family, strangers, animals, the earth, and heaven, and it can also be enjoyed when we are at peace with our own souls. Intensity is a feeling of vitality and zest, creativity and sometimes edginess. It is exciting, vital, and invigorating. When we enjoy intensity, we feel fully alive, at least in the moment of enjoyment.
There's a lot of theology here, and it is conjoined with whole person psychology. Our aim in life -- and God's aim for us, so process theology adds -- is that we enjoy harmonious intensity and intense harmony. In the New Testament it is called abundant living. This way of living comes in as many forms as there are people. It has a lot to do with love, but that's not the whole of it. It also includes honesty, courage, wisdom, and humor.
Early on Walt had a bit of harmony in his life, but not enough intensity. The production of meth helped. It made life intense for him, but at the expense of a kind of harmony -- a moral harmony -- that he also knew was right. His heart struggled between harmony and intensity, and somewhere along the way intensity won the battle. That's why we understand Walt. We seek harmonious intensity, too. We, too, want the satisfaction of being alive, creative, and richly related to the world. We, too, make bad choices.
So we ought not be too hard on Walt, lest we be too hard on ourselves. No, in the end Walt did not enjoy fullness of abundant living. But he was more alive than he was early on, when he was an underachieving high school teacher who couldn't even make a toast at his own birthday party. He had more intensity, and we could all feel it.
Process theologians believe that even the very Life of the universe - even God - could feel it, too. For us God is a living receptacle for all the world's experiences (the consequent nature of God) and a creative agent in the world (the primordial nature of God) who perpetually seeks the well-being of the world. The agency of God is not coercive or manipulative, it is beckoning and inviting. It is the spirit of creative transformation in the world.
As God watched the last episode -- and even God was not privy to the ending before it was written by the writers -- God understood what Walt meant when he said: "I liked it, I was good at it, I was alive." In the words of Whitehead, "God is a fellow sufferer who understands."
Indeed, from a process perspective, God was in the very lure toward harmonious intensity to which Walt responded, albeit partially and brokenly. Thus, at least to my mind, Linda Holmes is not quite right. Inasmuch as Walt responded to the divine lure toward satisfying intensity, he was experiencing a touch of grace even amid the mayhem. Yes, he broke bad -- but he broke bad for reasons we can all understand. In his enjoyment of intensity there was a little grace, too. About the size of a mustard seed.
Worshiping the family
What prevented this seed from growing in healthy ways? Part of it may have been a matter of his own poor choices. But part of it pertained to a culture in which he found himself -- namely that of middle-class, upward mobility America, with its drug-addicted culture and its idolatry of family life. Many Americans make a god of their family and then proceed through life as if loyalty to family, and family alone, can be and should be the central organizing principle of life. Conservatives call it family values; but we might better call it family-idolatry.
Walt fell into this form of idolatry deeply. He did care for others, but all were within the horizons of his family circle. His heart, his soul, had not widened into a capacity for entering into a wider range of loving relationships. His soul was intense but shriveled; it had depth but not width. It lacked what Patricia Adams Farmer's calls fatness: What is Fat Soul Philosophy? Walt died a work-in-progress. He was not a bad person, but not a good one either. Is anyone?
Is anyone a good person?
Not really. Of course, a person is not a thing. Bob Mesle makes this clear in his article The Soul is Not a Thing. A person is an ongoing process of weaving relationships with other people and with the earth into a tapestry, and this process unfolds moment by moment. In the life of a person some moments are filled with goodness and some are not. Walt had his good moments. So do we all. There's no need to pretend that the world is divided into two kinds of people: good people and bad people. We are all mixed bags.
This is what makes it so strange that some people, watching Breaking Bad, could sympathize with Walt but demonize others, including Skylar. You will enjoy the interview with Anna Gunn, the actress who played her, on the right. Even she couldn't understand it.
The truth is: most of us are breaking bad in some ways and breaking good in others, and often we are doing both at the same time. Even more complicated, our gifts are usually our sins. Our love of family (a gift) becomes a neglect of others (a sin). Breaking Bad might have better been called Breaking Bad and Breaking Good and Not Being Able to Tell the Difference Sometimes. This is why we liked the series. It did not really allow us to divide the world cleanly into "bad" and "good."
I leave the series thankful for its glorious ambiguity, its refusal to take any character and render it into entirely predictable terms. Admittedly, Gus still scares me. He was like the devil, a caricature of pure evil in sheep's clothing (or restaurateur's clothing). But most of the other characters were immediately recognizable. They were in me and I in them. That's the wisdom of the series. No easy answers.
Gus, I am praying for you.
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