The Exhausting Work of Being “Good”

Like most, I like to think of myself as a good person. In fact, it’s something I’ve never really questioned. I can quickly call to mind a list of evidence of the acts I’ve done, the personality traits I believe I possess, or the compliments I’ve received.

But am I in fact, good? And what does “being a good person” even mean? In so many ways I am not good, decent, kind, giving, or any of the other adjectives associated with the type of person I see myself as.

It’s easy for me to point to the evidence of the redeeming aspects of myself and actions, but if I give it thought I can tell a totally different story about who I am. Someone who is selfish and self-centered, someone who has been thoughtless and even cruel to people who didn’t deserve it, who withheld help or kindness.

I’ve often smugly wondered how those who perpetuate the things that are wrong in the world or those who sit knowingly and idly by as the large and small injustices are perpetuated can live with themselves. I am better, I am good, I think. But am I really that different? Are any of us?

I’m not talking about the heinous crimes of humanity like murder and exploitation, but the small everyday cruelty — ignoring panhandlers, not giving up your seat, curt words to your spouse.

I think modern life, especially in a big city, offers a certain amount of anonymity. It’s almost necessary to give yourself distance in your mind from the rest of humanity for the lack of physical distance you have. Cold reserve becomes an unquestioned default.

Maybe what separates the “good” people and the “bad” people is simple realization. More than a conscience, it’s awareness, participation in life, connection to other living beings. And it’s something I plan to endeavor to do more of. Frankly it sounds exhausting. But it’s a more authentic “goodness” — virtue that’s comfortable and  convenient serves the doer more than the community.

But like anything, I think, we have to also allow ourselves to fail. No one can be good all the time. Even Mother Teresa probably rolled her eyes sometimes.

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