What does it mean to be a good person?
I think about this a lot.
There are, you know, plenty of schools of thought on this topic. Many a philosopher has spent a lifetime devoted to answering this question. Scholars, religious leaders, and great thinkers have all contemplated what it means to be good. You could argue religion mostly exists to address this question. Our moral codes and laws dictate what is good and what is bad.
Are you a good person if you simply do no harm? Are you a good person if you abide by laws? Even laws that are unjust? Are you a good person if you go to church? If you read scripture? Are you a good person if you write big fact checks to charities? Or any checks to any charities? Are you a good person if you give of your time? You heart? Are you a good person if you live a simple life concerned about yourself and your loved ones only?
Is being good the same as being kind? Is it the same as being honest? Is it an allegiance to only one moral code? Or any moral code?
I would assume if you were to ask people, most everyone would answer yes. I’m a good person. Maybe you’re asking yourself right now and you’re nodding as you read this….I’ve lived a good life. I’m a good person. I mean. I’ve never killed anyone.
Because those people are the bad ones. The ones whom you could never understand. Those who take innocent lives. Those who worship differently. Those who steal. Those who lie. Those who betray their friends. Hell, compared to them you’re a saint.
We all like to think of ourselves as good people. We all actually have much better perceptions of ourselves than others do, and distorted realities of just how good we actually are. We all think we’re more honest than we really are. More kind than we really are. And boy do we like to think we’re more generous than we really are.
So what is it that makes someone good? Are we good just because we say we are? Because our friends say we are?
I’ve rested comfortably in good person land most of my life. But lately, as I look at the world around me and I am forced to take a critical look at myself, I have realized….I’m not a good person. We’re not good people.
And I hope I never am a good person.
When we convince ourselves we are good people, we give ourselves a pass. We allow ourselves to turn a blind eye toward injustice. We don’t need to pay the homeless man on the corner any mind because we volunteered at a soup kitchen this morning. We don’t need to ask ourselves hard questions. We don’t need to wrestle with the inconvenient truths of greed and selfishness and oppression and white supremacy because we go to church, or we believe in God, or we have careers in service. No we’re good people. We tuck ourselves in at night believing we have done enough.
For me, the realization came in a moment of honesty. Or maybe several moments. No, I have not done enough. I have remained silent when silence was easier than rocking the boat (yes, it has happened). I’ve surrounded myself with friends who look like me. Talk like me. Have histories like mine. I have shielded myself under my introverted tendencies to keep to myself instead of making connections. I have stayed safe within my inner circle of people who know me and supposedly like me — shielded from criticism and truths that may be hard to hear.
I have stood on my soapbox preaching far and wide the importance of paid family leave when, at the same time, people within my community are fighting everyday to simply not be targets because of the color of their skin.
I have allowed myself to feel safe within my walls of privilege. I have afforded myself the cognitive dissonance I so quickly point out in others. And even worse, I have enabled myself to believe I live on some moral high ground. I am not one of those people. I am one of the good ones.
At my best I am a work in progress. At my worst I am selfish, vain, and comfortable.
I do not get to hang my hat on some good person rung. If I am not actively challenging myself everyday to think more critically, to speak out more regularly, to step outside of my comfort zone, I do not get to rest easy.
Becoming a good person should be something that takes work. It should be a lifetime project. It should hurt. It should require growth. It should evoke brutal honesty, critical self-reflection, and difficult realizations. Good isn’t something you are because you do this or that. It’s something you strive to be.
I am not a good person today, and I won’t be tomorrow.
When I die, I hope people don’t remember me as a good person.
But as someone who tried to be.
“Most of us in this room have done well in our lives. It is fine to want to do well. But if we do not do good too, doing well is simply not enough.” ~ Anna Quindlen