“The mother of a man accused of striking his girlfriend’s 3-year-old with a frying pan, hanging him upside down and hitting him, and whipping him with a metal rod said Friday that her son is a good kid and she doesn’t believe he beat the boy to death.” – NY Daily News
It’s a weekend night and you are halfway through dinner with a friend. Somehow the conversation has gone where you didn’t want it to, deep into religion, politics, and life. The conversation bounces from hot debate to agreeing-to-disagree, or, if you’re lucky, actually agreeing. It’s intense, but guards are down. This is what friendship is about – exploring life together and having great conversations.
Finally, your friend says,
“life is just about being a good person, you know?”
How many times have you heard this phrase? Is it true? You know your friend is right, but can it be that easy? Is being a “good person” good enough? And who is decides who is “good?” Even a convicted felon who beats his son is considered “good” by his mama.
Almost every walk of life and every religion has, on the outside, a simple theory on being “good.”
Christianity: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Hinduism: “Every individual should aim at.. Serenity of mind, good heartedness, silence, self-control, purity of nature these are called the ‘mental austerity’.” (The Gita, Chapter XVII, 16)
Buddhism: “The significance and purpose of following the Buddha are to attain perfection.” http://www.buddhanet.net/cbp1_f2.htm
Islam: “Doing good and having the right belief go hand in hand in Islam.” http://www.muslim.org/islam/int-is7.htm
Judaism: “Do good deeds often. We become good people not by thinking good thoughts but by doing good deeds again and again, until they become part of our nature.” http://rjmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1100
And so on…
Most, if not all other groups of moral belief will agree the same: spiritualists, Atheists, Deists, [I can go on]. These people will mostly all agree that being “good” is, well, good. I have found this belief to be uniform among many of my closest friends and acquaintances. People from all backgrounds and walks of life who mostly seem to believe that much of life, death, and morality rests on either being or attempting to be a good person.
This belief is one that our humanity is built on. It has started charities, homeless shelters, and non-profits. It causes a person to jump in front of a moving car for a stranger. It sends people around the world building houses or water wells for those of less fortune. It limits selfishness, malice, and back-biting. It helps people refrain from gossiping, swearing, and littering. The point is, the desire to feel like a “good person” drives much of our action and inaction. It produces great things and limits not-so-great things.
But, while it is true that the effort to be “good” benefits society, and that everyone should strive to treat others well, to take care of their planet, and to give, I still take issue with this concept’s absoluteness. It seems too easy and too subjective. In our ecosystem of morality, this concept seems too simple and too relative, to just be “good.”
I’m not fully convinced that “being a good person” is a bar we can even reach, and even if we did, how would we know? I am not suggesting we discontinue our efforts in trying to be good, but I am questioning what that even means and how we decide it. After all, if we find ourself behind bars for beating our three-year-old with a frying pan, but still believe we are “good,” then what value is this concept? Again, it feels too subjective and too loosely-defined.
You might think I’ve lost my mind or maybe that I am overlooking the obvious. You say that those people, the criminals and the evil ones who call themselves “good” shouldn’t be considered in the conversation. It’s that simple, you say. But it’s not that simple.
Can you answer this question: what does it mean to be a good person? One friend of mine said it is about the heart. Another told me it’s about treating others well. Some believe, I suppose, that it means standing up for one’s convictions, or living a life of purpose by working hard. Being a good person will no doubt mean different things to different people.
I am fixated on the lack of definition around this word, good. Is it not true that we all believe that our thoughts, intentions, and actions are all rooted in goodness? After all, no person wants to believe she is bad, right? For that would qualify a life unworthy of living. Maybe the suicidal man believes he is bad? Does a cheater? A thief? Rapist? Murderer? If you were to interview one of our millions of incarcerated men or women here in the U.S., wouldn’t they tell you that deep down they are good, despite their moments of weakness or the illegal activities they were caught up in? I wouldn’t want to disagree with them and neither should you.
Who decides what is good? Who sets that bar? And furthermore, how can anyone know if he or she meets those requirements? It is self-evaluation on an unmeasurable and always-changing scale. Like trying to measure a cubic foot of water in the ocean while scuba diving blindfolded.
A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.
My thoughts on this are simple, I know. And while they might not be right, I have at least exercised them enough to discontinue the annoying repetition here where I keep asking you about being good.
The conclusion I have reached is this: no one is good. You can’t be good. We are all neither good nor bad, but rather we live in a fluid state of being and our actions and thoughts reflect not our morality, but our humanity. Striving to be good is a waste of energy. You can’t ever be good, per say. Because even when you have measured yourself as good, it is an illusion based on emotions. You can’t measure it, and how can anyone else measure it for you? Our self-morality is too fluid, too ambiguous, and too relative.
Maybe there is more to life, death, morality, spirituality, and eternity beside just “being a good person.” Maybe that’s not a good enough measuring stick because it doesn’t actually work. The problem then becomes, what do we have to put in its place? How can we feel good about life and death and our personal morality?
I told you earlier that all beliefs promote being a “good person.” Christianity even asks us to strive for perfection and to be known by our good works. But still, the Bible has this peculiar verse that always sticks out to me. It says that no one is good. “There is none righteous, no, not one…” (Romans 3:10). You can read on if you want to know what else it says.
In the meantime, keep trying to be a good person, but don’t stop there. Be more than good. Be passionate, be resilient, be humble, be self-sacrificing, be loving.