For a long time, I aspired to be good. Not good in the girly sense, with polite smiles and swallowed anger and perfect scores. What I really wanted was to be someone who unequivocally did right by the world, someone whose energy and resources were put towards justice and equality and all the glittering buzz words of a liberal arts education or a Sunday morning at the Unitarian Universalist church.
I wanted my ethical agitation to somehow settle into the calm of a lake on a perfectly warm afternoon with no breeze. I’d done enough. I’d lived with enough intention. I could rest in my goodness.
But, if we’re really on a quest to live an awake, ethical life, there is no honest rest. What does it mean to do good? To be good?
We live in a time when there are unintended consequences for just about everything we do. You teach the man to fish, and realize that you’ve left out his wife and instructed him using a fishing line that is destructive to the coral reefs below.
Most purchases seem connected to an invisible web of labor and production that stretches across oceans and opportunity gaps. You buy local and organic only to learn that neither means quite what it suggests; people who can’t “afford” to meet the minimum requirements to be certified organic are losing their family farms.
Many a homeless advocate has told me that it’s better not to give out change willy nilly, but to support the institutions and organizations that feed, clothe, house, and heal people on the streets. And yet, when I tune into my podcast and tune out the old woman on the subway asking for help, I feel that we’re both diminished.
So what is the alternative? To throw up your hands in the face of such systemic and moral complexity and just do what’s easy in any given moment? To give up on being ethical and instead just pursue pleasure?
Of course not. The alternative is to let your actions be inspired — not by goodness but by curiosity. Be curious about where your food, your clothes, your stuff comes from. Learn more. Ask questions. Become a systems thinker — a far more edifying and interesting identity than a do-gooder. And though I may be pegged as a real nerd for saying so, there’s no small amount of pleasure in it. Start to notice patterns that make certain systems dignifying and others soul-sucking. Expect more from even the most entrenched systems. Acknowledge when people are doing a bad job; assume it’s the structures within which they work, not the quality of their soul that is leading to the failures. Quickly move on to ask, “Who is doing it better?” Celebrate and emulate.
Let your goal be to humanize as many transactions as possible, not to make perfect decisions. Whether you decide that taking Uber is the way to go (disruption! worker autonomy!) or you’d rather support yellow cabs who still have the power to unionize and value the law even when it’s inconvenient, at least have an interesting conversation with your driver while doing it. You might look back and realize you made the wrong call with your money, but you can feel righteous about how you used your presence.
Take things personally. You are not the only one that matters, but you are one of the billions who do. And that’s something.
It’s a vote. A dollar. An op-ed. A tweet. An inch in the landfill. A millimeter of clean sky. A seat on the bus. If you don’t get it right this time, try to get it right on the next go round. Don’t be overwhelmed by your power, but don’t be dismissive of it either. In the face of a range of impure choices, you can still make the least harmful one and feel some sense of pride in your thoughtfulness. You can continually expand your moral imagination, even in the face of overwhelming choice.
Goodness is so often worn like a shield of immunity (I’m not racist. I’m one of the good white people.) or a cape of specialness (I could have made a lot of money, but I decided to start my own nonprofit instead.) It’s sometimes used as an excuse for treating abstract people — the “poor, disadvantaged, vulnerable” — well, while stomping all over the people who actually know you. I’ve met too many do-gooders who are steeped in the skills of social entrepreneurship, but starve their real relationships while feeding their egos. They can fundraise millions, but don’t listen for shit.
At this point in my life, I still crave a kind of calm, a respite from my own ethical angst. But, these days I’m more interested in a calm born of gentleness, not righteousness. I want to be gentle with myself and all my hard-earned confusion. I want to be gentle with others, ever aware of the wounds they carry with them through this tough, beautiful world. We are all subjected to broken systems, but none of us are purely good or bad.
There are so many things I would rather be than good. I would rather be engaged. I would rather be humble. I would rather be genuinely provocative. I would rather be present. I would rather be interdependent. I would rather be challenged. I would rather be wise. I would rather be real. It will never be enough. It will always be worth the discomfort.