The enemy of the good
“Good is what you do, not how you are.” Or, so says the clever answer that some misguided sticklers for grammar might offer when “I’m good” is offered as a response to the question “How are you?” (Supposedly ‘well’ is the better word to use.)
While this may not be strictly accurate in the context of grammar, I think that it is accurate in the context of morality in general. This occurred to me today as I was watching this TED talk from Jay Smooth which focuses on the way people talk about race.
He points out that people see racism as something that you are, rather than something that you do. This means that pointing out any instance of racist behavior (even comparatively mild or unintentional things) is taken as a full blown accusation of racism. We see racism as a binary, on-off sort of thing. This means we are unwilling to admit to small imperfections in order to maintain our belief that we are basically good people, as good people cannot be racist.
“When you believe that you must be perfect in order to be good it makes you averse to recognizing your own inevitable imperfections, and that lets them stagnate and grow. … So the belief that you must be perfect to be good is an obstacle to being as good as you can be. … We are not good despite our imperfections. It is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allow us to be good.”
In other words what makes us “good” people is, at least in part, our awareness of our failings, and our efforts to overcome them. I think this is incredibly valuable for talking about race, but this behavior vs state-of-being approach has a much broader application as well.
Consider the following:
I am honest.
I am chaste.
I am modest.
I am generous.
I think it is interesting to think of how those ‘am’ statements would or could translate into behavior based statements. For example, would it be “I say honest things.” or “I do honest things.” Or is “I avoid dishonesty” more accurate? Is there a difference? If so, what is it?
How many of us like to think of ourselves as good people, and are perhaps unwilling to to entertain the notion that we may fall short in many critical areas? And when we do see an imperfection we’re filled with shame and frustration? Just recently a shortcoming of mine was brought to my attention and my first response was to feel awful and say to myself “Wow I’m a jerk.” Instead of “Oh, I’ve hurt this person’s feelings, now I know to watch out for that.” It seems obvious which of those two responses is more effective in creating a better person. It will ultimately be my familiarity with my shortcomings that will allow me to keep them in check. The effort (or lack of effort) that I put into maintaining that familiarity is what makes me a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person.
I think that I, at least, could stand to gain quite a bit from remembering that “good is what I do, not what I am.”