I have been passive for most of my life. Obedient, in most ways, to a fault. It was instilled in me to be ‘good,’ and I naturally desired that. However, my definition of ‘good,’ has morphed throughout the years. What is a ‘good’ person? Do the opposite of those qualities equate a ‘bad’ person? I don’t believe life is so black and white, and context is always key. To that end, do these questions even matter? Do they deserve time and energy to be answered? I’m not entirely convinced they do- at least not in a definitive manner. In the translation of Tao Te Ching by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English there is a stanza that includes:
“What is a good man?
A teacher of a bad man.
What is a bad man?
A good man’s charge.”
Attempting to strive for something that is inherently, and possibly morally, elusive can result in confusion. Stating we are a ‘good’ person has always been alarming to me- it automatically elevates you above someone else- and wouldn’t that be the opposite of what a stereotypical ‘good person’ would be? Regardless of how we are raised, we learn our own definition of what a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ person is. Obviously as a society, morals and ethics have developed for a reason, however, when relating to our own identity, can this set us up for failure or success? What I thought was ‘good’ was actually destroying me for years. There is also the notion that: “The more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place.” — Alan Watts
Now that we are in somewhat of a moral paradox, like most philosophy presents, what do we do with this information? I went down this rabbit hole of understanding due to the unveiling of a destructive core belief that I have been battling: “I’m not good enough.” I absorbed from my upbringing that extreme self-sacrifice equaled worthiness, thereby causing me to associate suffering with reward. This led to my obsessive nature with perfection, mostly non-consciously. Now that I have clarity, how can I still stay true to my own values while not striving after a ‘good’ that seems nonexistent? Can you be ‘good’ while staying in the present and true to yourself? My own simple opinion is this: the most selfless act you can do is to separate yourself from yourself. We are wired to be selfish for survival. On the flip side, exerting that selfishness will lower our quality of life over time- for how can you build relationships if you are more concerned about your own ego than others? Granted, ego protects us in a certain fashion, but like most human behaviors, it can also damage us. If you can find and nurture the spectrum of giving and taking, I believe that is the most selfless act you can offer. Is there a defined spectrum? Of course not. These definitions are descriptions we must choose for ourselves, and they will shift as we experience life. This was a shocking concept to someone like me, who for most of my life, was taught to believe in a rigid belief system. Whether or not we actually have free will is besides the point- the reality we experience is our truth.
I believe the thought around virtue is fascinating, as it inspires introspection and personal exploration, if you allow it. Anyone can read all the books in the world, all the wisdom on good and evil, (I’m guilty of data obsessing) which can definitely be impactful (books have changed parts of my life), however, sitting, breathing, pausing and existing as you gather evidence of your world triumphs over letters on a page. I’m currently in what feels like a free-fall phase of life; it’s terribly frightening if I allow it. But it’s also unexpectedly liberating- to be granted the space to digest what’s around me without debilitating anxiety of the unknown. To be a ‘good’ person, ironically, that’s up to you, but I suggest embracing its cycle of disorientation. To be selfless, live outside yourself, otherwise, where are you actually living?