the goods.

i am thinking about proverbs 3 (a favorite chapter of mine). verse 27, specifically the lines: ‘withhold[ing] not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it. say not unto thy neighbour, go, and come again, and to morrow i will give; when thou hast it by thee.’ and i’m thinking about it in light of my own circumstances. what good i have to give those to whom it is due (and this includes both others and myself). what good i have it in my power to do. what i have to give. what it means to lead a ‘good’ life.

and i’ve realized that in many ways i have thought about this incompletely. what does it mean to live a good life–not just one full of goodness, but one that deserves the epithet ‘good’? in many ways, i’ve envisioned the ‘good’ life as something that originates outside myself in some set of ideals. some of those ideals are very traditional. marriage. children. a home with a garden. building a sanctuary for those i love. others of my ideals are very reformist liberal. social equity. various versions of activism (though i generally espouse the variety that involves my purchasing power and my lifestyle, more than the variety that involves shouting in the street). progressive politics. while they all reflect my own beliefs, i think of all of them as greater than myself–as something larger and more beautiful than i am alone. and because they are superlative, they’re difficult to realize. that difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that those two different sources of ideals–the traditional and the progressive liberal–often seem to conflict. what does it mean, for instance, to want both a career (one centrally focused on feminism and liberal social ideals) and a traditional home life? i realize these desires don’t necessarily conflict, but sometimes they feel like they do.

and then there is doing good. so often, i think about doing good in prescribed ways. to do good is to give to others of my material means. or to do acts of charity. i feel enormous responsibility to relieve suffering–a responsibility so enormous that i could never fulfill it. because there seems so very little i can do to help the children of haiti or AIDS orphans in africa or the dislocated people of sudan. because locked in my rather sterile suburban existence, the good i do often seems limited to providing christmas for a local family through my singles program or simple, spontaneous acts like thanking someone who holds a door for me or helping clean up a mess i didn’t cause. i recognize and espouse the necessity of spontaneity in doing good. but when i think about it in the abstract, doing good generally is about fulfilling some external dictum. forgive. comfort. mourn. relieve. love.

it occurs to me that i almost invariably approach the question of what it means to do good by first considering what others need and then applying the appropriate dictum. someone’s spouse dies; mourn. someone is in pain; comfort. someone hurt me; forgive. now, i don’t think this is a wrong approach to doing good. i think it’s absolutely vital that we go out of our way to be aware of the suffering around us–both locally and distantly–and to then do everything in our power to aid those who suffer. and the external ideals that give rise to my vision of the ‘good’ life are important and beautiful. but today, as i re-read my post on confidence (i needed the pep-talk, even if it was self-authored), i got to thinking about this state of affairs.

a great deal of my current depression and paralysis arises out of an almost inescapable awareness that my life does not match the ‘good’ life i envision. i’m not married. i don’t have children. and when i’m brutally honest with myself, i acknowledge that it’s entirely possible (and perhaps entirely likely) that i’ll never marry or have children (though i’m pretty adamant about adopting if i remain single). i don’t have my own place to live and sometimes despair of being able to have my own home surrounded by beautiful growing things. every morning i start my day with a dose of npr. and while i can’t imagine not doing so, the news sometimes leaves me feeling utterly incapable of doing anything meaningful to advance the causes of social equity. while i occasionally refuse shopping bags because i don’t want to cause waste and walk because i don’t want to waste gas and throw my cans and bottles into the recycling bin, i’m shamefully wasteful and as consumerist as the next american. the discrepancy between my reality and the external ideals i adhere to occasionally strikes me as so great that i become paralyzed: incapable of making the ideals real but loving them and believing in them so much that i cannot simply ignore them, i end up doing nothing. nothing but berate myself for my failure, that is.

in the last several years, this has been most pronounced in my academic career. in part this manifests itself in the clash between perfectionism and grand ideas on the one hand and deadlines and practical expectations on the other. like the paper i wrote last february–the one i had to write so i could return to school full time. a friend read it for me and commented that the ideas were the makings of a dissertation, not a seminar paper. and he was right. half my battle was pursuing ideas and connections on such a large scale that i couldn’t make them fit the parameters of the assignment. and the other half was that nothing i wrote seemed good enough. the reality of the paper just didn’t match the elusive vision in my head of what i wanted to say. and as a result i stewed and stewed and stewed and drove myself (and others) a bit batty. in the end, i wrote the damn paper. and in the end, it was good enough.

my academic paralysis has also resulted from the apparent clash of ideals i mentioned earlier. intellectually i understand that pursuing my degree and my career does not shut off the possibility of marriage and motherhood. in fact, given my passion for what i do and my commitment to education and gender equity, i’m more likely to attract the kind of man i’d be interested in marrying if i continue my education than if i did not. but with nearly 32 years of mormon religious education under my belt, there’s an undeniably real undercurrent in my psyche that suggests that the more educated i become, the less likely i am to marry and, by extension, have children. i know that’s wrong. and i reject as deeply flawed every understanding of mormon teaching that suggests that women should not seek fulfillment as individuals or that they should stifle their own passions and drives in order to marry (these understandings are generally not overt, but rather culturally implied). in my opinion, a woman stifling herself in such a way is nothing short of a recipe for disaster. but the years of lessons and talks and blessings have successfully induced me to believe in the ideal of marriage and family as the ‘good’ life so thoroughly that it continues to govern my subconscious in spite of the beliefs and ideals i more consciously espouse. and then there’s the reality that being a liberal or a feminist or an intellectual single mormon woman drastically reduces the pool of potential mormon spouses. being all three sometimes feels like a death sentence where marrying a mormon is concerned…

combine this state of affairs with the fact that my current commitments (grad school, church callings, family obligations, trying to have something of a social life) make it nearly impossible to do good in the prescribed ways that meet general needs (service as relief work, either locally or globally), and i not only feel paralyzed but selfish and thoughtless, too. and before i know it, i seem not only to fail at leading a ‘good’ life, but also at doing good. my life ends up feeling insular and isolated. and it doesn’t even compensate by at least fitting the mold of the ‘good’ life as premised on external ideals.

as i re-read the words of proverbs 3 today, a very simple realization struck me–one of those recognitions that is so simple that it almost shouldn’t have to be articulated. if revelation is action–is moving forward into the terrifying void of an untried and unfamiliar life path, to paraphrase my post on confidence–and that action should take the shape of ‘withhold[ing] not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it,’ then what good must i do? what action must i take? what is in the power of my hand to do? recognizing need and suffering in others and alleviating it is certainly part of that action. but i don’t think that good is exclusively reactionary in nature. i think it’s also (and perhaps primarily) constructive and active in nature. it’s using the gifts i’ve been given. all of them, not just those that will fulfill a prescription for the ‘good’ life. it’s letting my passion for learning and teaching flourish. it’s challenging my students’ foundational premises so that they think and see the world in new ways. it’s seizing the opportunities life presents and making them my own, complete with my own bizarre combination of apparently incongruous ideals and commitments.

in short, i think actively doing good requires being myself. doing what i do. thinking what i think. letting the ‘good’ life and good actions come from within as i reach towards the external ideals i love. seems rather simple, doesn’t it. but it hit me pretty hard this afternoon. i don’t want to jettison the external ideals i love and strive to realize. but i need to allow my own passions and abilities and ideas to combine with those external ideals in a process that results in a sum that is truly greater than its parts.

{this was cross-posted on my personal blog, laughtear.}

Amelia

Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

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  1. Caroline says:

    “but i don’t think that good is exclusively reactionary in nature. i think it’s also (and perhaps primarily) constructive and active in nature. it’s using the gifts i’ve been given. all of them, not just those that will fulfill a prescription for the ‘good’ life. it’s letting my passion for learning and teaching flourish.”

    I LOVE this.

    I sometimes suffer from some of the same paralyses that you suffer from. I see how privileged I am, I know how others struggle to merely survive, and yet I find it hard to do anything that feels meaningful to help these other people.

    A big part of me is attracted to the idea of doing something Good on a grand scale, like starting a school for girls in Afghanistan. And that part of me thinks that if I can’t do something like that, then I’m not really doing any meaningful good in the world.

    So I like your idea of using my personal gifts to do good. My gifts may not lead me to starting schools for sugjugated young women, but hopefully they’ll lead me to some things that will be meaningful to others on a smaller scale.

  2. Deborah says:

    Not much to say, but I like this post in connection with Dora’s — glad I logged on today . . .

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