How to be good

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If I had to pick a super power, the ability to read people’s minds would not be high on my list. I feel all in all, we really should not know what other people are thinking most of the time, but one thing I would like to know is if other people spend as much time worrying about whether or not they are good. Friends have told me this is a Catholic thing, but I was raised Southern Baptist, a denomination with some serious social stigma attached to it, but not, I believe, the explanation for my obsession with being good. I don’t know if I spend more time than normal thinking about whether or not I’m good, but it definitely makes my top ten list of concerns.

Being good can mean a whole lot of things. Are you forgiving of your spouse? Do you watch too much t.v.? Do you use eco-friendly cleaning products? These are all things that concern me and make up a tiny fraction of what’s a very long list of ways in which I aspire to be good. What I mostly want to talk about here is the more diffuse kind of being good, the things that are often referred to as “giving back,” though it’s not completely clear who or what you’re giving back to.

In the community in which I grew up, there were formal ways of “giving back.” You could take things to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. My dad gave money to United Way. In church and school, we did many youth projects that involved helping the “needy.” But I think we often also discount the informal ways in which people “give back.” Giving your neighbor a ride when they need it. Taking care of someone else’s child for a few hours when no other babysitting is available. The all important meal brigade that happens when someone gives birth, gets sick, or loses a family member. I very much like the idea of giving back through food, and I also like the sense in these kind of activities that part of what it means to be in a community is that you take care of each other without any necessarily formal means for doing so. I’ve also had experiences of the more formal kind of “giving back.”

The disembodied expert voice on such things seems to indicate that the best experiences of doing good are those which you yourself enjoy. So, this expert voice instructs, if you’re going to get involved you should do something that you already enjoy. But is that right? The most rewarding experiences I’ve had with doing good have not always been enjoyable to me while I was doing them, but I enjoyed knowing that in the end, someone would benefit. I’ve felt the best about doing good when it was personal, and often this involved nothing more than guiding a student towards the help they needed, or sitting in the office and listening to them for a half an hour. I’ve generally found that the more formal my “doing good” activity is, the less I seem to get out of it. And I wonder whether what’s really important in the end is doing good, or building community, and how those two go together.

So as the year draws to close, I’m gearing up for my very own happiness project. One of my resolutions is to work on doing good, and what I’m wondering is, what’s the best way to go about it? Do you go and formally volunteer somewhere? Or look at the people you already know and think about what you can do for them? What’s the best way to be good?

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Comments

  1. After two and a half years of teaching, I find myself having a bit of a crisis over the good I'm doing. Early on, I told myself that if I felt like I was having an influence on just a few students in a semester, I should feel like I'm accomplishing something. Lately, I don't even feel like that is enough.

    Part of the problem is having those delusions of grandeur as a kid – thinking that you could make a huge difference in the world. I used to think that maybe making a small difference in a student's life now can lead to them making a bigger difference in the future, but that may just be something I tell myself to be able to sleep at night. Day after day I don't feel like I'm doing enough in the classroom. Maybe that's why I've taken on so many other things.

    Of course, then there is the whole matter of doing good for your family, which I'm sure you could yell at me about.

  2. Doing good for your family is the very hardest, I think, because they can be so damn annoying and there's so much at stake. But I have no intention of yelling because I know you do a great deal of good for all of your family.

    It sucks feeling like you're not really reaching your students. I've certainly felt that and continue to feel it sometimes. I believe (I have no idea whether or not it's true) that sometimes I just won't ever see what effect I have on students' lives. Every now and then you're lucky, and it's visible…a student writes you an e-mail to thank you or something. But most of the time, they won't, and I just have to trust that there are small moments in their lives when they see something a certain way in part because of what happened in my class.

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