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How to be a Good Person In a Seemingly Bad World

PUBLISHED October 11, 2020

I procrastinate, I sleep in, I don’t always take the road less traveled. I sometimes shirk responsibility. I consider thoughtful things to do for others but then hardly seem to get around to them. I only exercise intermittently; same with eating healthy. I can’t remember the last time I volunteered. I donate money but does it even make a difference? I pick fights even when I’m not that passionate about my point of view, just because someone else’s assurance in theirs irritates me. I gossip.

What makes someone a ‘good’ person? Judaism would tell us it’s the actions someone takes; simply thinking about doing good things doesn’t make someone a good person. Which stands in contrast to Christianity, which judges even one’s innermost thoughts. Wicca would tell us it’s that which does no harm. Buddhism alleviates us from judgement all together. Nietzscheism would criticize our belief in ‘good’ at all. Capitalism would tell us it’s the latest thing on the market and sell it to us at a premium. 

There is one particular drunken night from college that sticks hazily to the inside of my brain. I was walking from party to party with a group of friends and wound up in a very deep conversation with, well, I can’t say who really because I truly don’t remember. But in any case, we got on the subject of morality, or the psyche, or some such deep, drunken topic. And I just remember him saying something along the lines of, “You are all sides of you. There is no side of yourself that is any more you than any other side.”

It seems simple enough, but at the time I had been struggling with that very thing, of rejecting an entire part of myself that I didn’t like, of pretending it didn’t exist, and putting all my effort into making myself a certain way. 

We get into this trap where we feel like there is a version of us that is more ‘us.’ A version that is good, that is consequently more confident, more energetic, more focused, more outgoing. That’s the real us. And the side of us that’s sluggish, or anxious, or angry well, that’s not really us.

There’s a card in tarot called the Wheel of Fortune. In Robin Wood’s deck, the Wheel of Fortune is presented as a cycle of emotion, with an ecstatic, exuberant woman at the top, and a despondent depressed woman at the bottom. The card illustrates not only that as a whole we are made up of all these separate but equally important parts, but that in life we cycle through all of these ways of being. We are never constantly happy and enthusiastic and proud. Sometimes we feel rather bland, and sometimes we feel like ending it all. The more effort and energy we put into trying to keep ourselves at the top of the wheel, the faster and harder that wheel eventually spins in the opposite direction.

No one is all good or all bad. We have a fetish for simplicity–of making things fit into neat, tidy boxes. We want to be able to assess something in a matter of minutes and make a decision about it in a matter of seconds, so we can tweet about it in a handful of characters. We want it to be simple to know how to feel about ourselves and others. But human beings are not simple creatures. 

I think we need to do away with this notion of a ‘good’ person. It’s simply not a functional designation for a human being. I think that most people are just trying to get by, trying to take the best care of themselves and the people around them that they can manage on any given day.

We want there to be a standard because we want the assurance that we fit into it. We’ll move the bar a thousand times to make sure that we’re still fitting the bill. But you don’t need to be a “good” person. You just need to be you. All sides of you are you. You’re not above that dark, shitty part of yourself.

Understanding the dual nature of humans leads to more holistic and informed critiques of public figures and ourselves. When we understand the ways in which people can be not good, we can appreciate the moments when they are. We can understand with more clarity the reality that people are wading through. It’s not about lowering expectations it’s about having real expectations. It’s about understanding how far we have to go, and having patience and kindness with the process it takes to get there. 

I don’t have to be a good person to know that I am a worthy person, that I am deserving of my time on this earth. I am someone who doesn’t always recycle, but who will truly listen if you come to me with a problem. I am curious about the world. I expose myself to different ideas and opinions. I fundamentally believe no one is better than anyone else. I am compassionate. I engage with the world around me. I give voice to causes I care about. I empathize with people who are different from me. I try. I’m not always a good person, but I try. 

And that, to me, is the point of it all. 

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