You Are Not a “Good Person”
If you are living a life where you are having authentic and connected relationships with other humans who you care about and who care about you, you’re going to get hurt. This is not a possibility, it is a stone-cold guarantee. It’s like the sun rising in the east or gravity — all attempts to prevent its happening will come to naught.
You will be hurt by others’ actions. Sometimes they mean to harm you. That’s actually rarer than you might think. Most people are not trying to harm other people. Most people’s harm comes from inattention or self-centeredness. They just weren’t thinking of you when they did what they did, and inadvertently harmed you. Sometimes they are even intending to do good, and end up harming you. Likewise, you will harm others. And more often than not, it will not be because you intended to do so.
I explain how you can hurt even when not intending to by using the analogy of the “hug-punch.” Most of us have done this — we open our arms wide to hug a friend, and for whatever reason, we misjudge the distance, they make a sudden move, and instead of clasping them in our embrace we deliver a left hook worthy of Evander Holyfield. Our intent was affection, our impact was painful.
I use this analogy a lot to explain why when you inadvertently say or do something insensitive or hurtful, your reaction should not be, “I was trying to give you a compliment!” or “That didn’t hurt,” or “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” When the friend you just punched in the jaw is standing there in pain, your first and only reaction if you are a decent human being should be, “Ohmigod I’m so sorry! Let me get you an ice pack.”
I’ve talked a lot about the dynamics of apologies and forgiveness, and why it’s important, both on a personal and societal level, that when people have committed wrongs they “own their shit.” Real forgiveness that allows people to move on from wrongs and start fresh demands that our apology be authentic and fulsome. One of the key things to understand about forgiveness is that as the person who did the harm, you do not get to decide how much the other person is hurt by your actions. You aren’t apologizing for the harm you think you did from the action you intended, you must apologize for the impacts of the actions you actually did which resulted in the harm that they are actually experiencing.
So why is that so hard for people?
I’ve talked about how for some people, they truly value getting what they want more than the people they end up harming to get it. But more often it’s hard because people are interested in maintaining the fiction that they are “a good person.”
“I’m a good person,” you’ll hear them say. “I would never intentionally hurt someone.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong… I’m a good person.”
“I’m not a racist. I’m a good person.”
The problem with this is that being a “good person” is not a fixed state of being. It’s not a status that you achieve that you can then use to define yourself. But that doesn’t stop people from thinking of it that way. They paint the world as being full of “good people” who do good things, and “bad people” who do bad things. And wouldn’t you know it? They are always, no matter what they say or do, one of the “good people.”
What is it that makes them a “good person?” Usually it’s the fact that they are outwardly doing all the “right” things that society expects of them. They have steady job, or are a stay at home parent. They pay all their bills and maybe raise kids. They might give to charity or participate in a community organization. They say please and thank you at the grocery store and they are nice to everyone they meet face to face. They don’t use “curse words” and they dress “appropriately” for every occasion. Because they have successfully created an outward appearance of being inoffensive and nice and of being a contributing member of the community, they think that means they are one of the “good people.”
And when they say, “I’m a good person,” what they are really saying is, “my behavior should not be harshly scrutinized, because as a good person, the presumption should be that the things I do are okay.” The tacit implication is that the status of being “a good person” should confer deference, even a kind of immunity from criticism.
Here’s the problem with that approach — it looks at the sum of outward appearances, and sorts people into categories — “good” or “bad” — and asks that we view all people’s actions through that lens. Good people can be presumed to do good things. And therefore, by extension of the logic, bad people may be presumed to do bad things. Once the sorting has been done, it creates a stilted lens that privileges “good” people and prejudices “bad” people. It also creates a power dynamic around who gets to do the sorting. Who decides what is “good” and what is “bad?” Those with social power will of course choose to sort themselves as “good,” and those that are different from them as “bad.”
The truth is, people are not categorically “good” or “bad.” “Good people” can do bad things. “Bad people” can do good things. In fact, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, all of us do a mixture of “good” and “bad” things. Especially when we realize that often an action that seems “good” from one perspective might be “bad” from another. The neighbor that gives the old lady next door an amaryllis plant did a “good” thing by giving a gift, yes? Maybe not, if the old lady’s beloved cat ends up chewing on the amaryllis plant and dying, since that plant is one of many that is poisonous to cats. When a local drug dealer gives money to the neighborhood middle school baseball team so they can have new uniforms, is that a “bad” thing? Most of us are not unfailingly “good” or “bad.” Moment by moment, action by action, we do both good and bad things.
But some people cling to this idea that they are a “good person.” They took they effort to do the “right” things, and they should reap a benefit from that, right? Certainly they are entitled to more deference from someone who did not take that time and effort, right? Surely they should “get a break” when they accidentally do a “bad” thing or when they hurt someone. They are entitled to the benefit of the doubt, they feel, because they’ve been “good” when others have been “bad.” After all, what’s the point of hewing to social norms if you don’t get anything for it?
But that’s not how it works. If you harm someone, you need to own that, and the fact that you usually make socially appropriate decisions or the fact that you didn’t mean to harm anyone doesn’t save you from that. Your act has caused another person to be in pain. And you need to own up to that truth, and take responsibility for providing whatever remedy you can.
And the idea that being “good” the rest of the time should give you a pass when you do something “bad” really should be called by its right name: entitlement. What you’re saying is that the fact that you have successfully created the right image based on past “good” behavior should entitle you to avoid the consequences when you hurt people. And while certainly our white supremacist, patriarchal, class-based society has operated that way in the past, people are waking up to the fact that it doesn’t have to be that way and shouldn’t be that way.
Because the truth is, who is “good” and who is “bad” is a meaningless designation, based on individual opinions and social power structures that work to the detriment of all but the privileged few who can do the “right” things, keep up the “right” appearances, and have the “right” friends. In truth no one is a “good” person. No one is a “bad” person. You are only as good or as bad as the things you do, and whether you are helping or harming those around you. On the day when I help one of my friends by delivering a casserole while she’s recovering from surgery, I have done a good thing. On the day when I forget to inform my neighbors that I have workmen coming over who will make a lot of noise, I have done a bad thing. Am I good person or a bad person? The truth is I am both. And I am neither. I am a person who does good and bad things. Hopefully more good things than bad.
But we all want to be the hero of our own story. We all want to look in the mirror and like the person we see. For many, that feeling is bound up in the identity of being a “good” person. They’ve done all the right things that people expected of them. Sometimes they’ve given up things they wanted to do or be because others told them only “bad” people did that. Maybe they didn’t get their hair dyed pink because only “weird” people do that. Maybe they avoided dating the person who wasn’t from their faith because they were told that only a “bad” person did that. Maybe they chose a career based on what would provide a better living, as opposed to doing something they loved, because only selfish people choose a career that might not be able to provide for a family. Or maybe they chose to go into the family business, even though they didn’t want to, because “good” people support their family. People make sacrifices to fit into what they are told will make them a “good person, “ and not all of those sacrifices are worth it, because they sometimes ask you to harm yourself more than you are helping someone else.
People have shoved themselves into the “good person” box, even though it didn’t fit them. And if they aren’t going to get some kind of reward for that, then why did they do it? They want that deference, that entitlement, because it might make the sacrifices they made on the altar of “goodness,” the hurt they suffered to meet others’ ideas of who they ought to be, worth it. And they secretly resent the people who have chosen not to hew to the social norms, because how dare they be happy when they haven’t chosen to be “good people” who play by the rules? Even though the truth of the matter is many of the “rules” do more to harm than to help. No one is injured when a person dyes their hair an unusual color. Choosing not to seek intimacy with someone because of their faith or skin color isn’t helping anyone. Family is supposed to provide mutual support, not extract resources from some members so that others can do as they please. Many of the things that people do in the name of demonstrating they are a “good person” do not really improve anything for anyone.
And that’s the trap of being a “good person.” It’s a pretend status that is ultimately devoid of meaning, and which has no real reward associated with it, other than your own smug satisfaction of being able to think you’re good even when what you’re doing is hurtful. If you really want to like the person staring at you in the mirror, you won’t get there by trying to be a “good person,” because often getting there requires you to do harm to yourself. Which is just as bad as harming someone else. Treating yourself with contempt, by ignoring harm you are doing to yourself, definitely won’t help you like yourself.
The better approach, the one that lets you like the person in the mirror, and which is not steeped in entitlement, focuses not on what you are, but what you do, and how what you do impacts others. You are not a good person. You are person who sometimes does good things, and sometimes does bad things. And we know whether things are good or bad based on their overall impact. Have you helped or harmed? Built someone or something up or torn them down? Are the people your actions affected in pain? Is what has been gained from the action more than what has been lost? This is a lot higher bar to meet than merely proclaiming yourself a “good person” and presuming that makes all your actions immune to criticism.
Doing that work is hard. It requires you to sometimes admit that you did a bad thing, and own it. It sometimes requires you to look at the action expected of you and say “no, I’m going to do this instead.” It requires you to think through not just your intentions, but the impact your actions might have. You have to care about what happens to other people as a result of what you do. You have to care about what happens to you as a result of what you do. And you have to make hard choices about where the greatest good lies. Because sometimes you’re not picking between good and bad actions, but bad and worse actions. None of that lets us say with confidence, “I’m a good person.”
The most we’re going to be able to muster when we do it this way is, “I did the best I could.” On the one hand it sounds weak. What if your best isn’t good enough compared to others? After all, if your aim is to be a “good person” you need to live up to whatever the people around you decide is good, whether it works for you or not. But your best is always in your power to do, and that’s the beauty of it. If you’re doing this authentically, it’s your BEST. You are not obligated to be better than anyone else, and it doesn’t matter if you’re worse, so long as you have done all you can to bring your personal, individual BEST. You not only can look in the mirror and be proud (because it’s your best), but you don’t have to look over your shoulder to determine whether it’s good enough for anyone else.
You are not a “good person.” And the good news is, you don’t have to be. Do the most good that you can, be the best you can, knowing that you own the impacts of all you do. That is all that anyone can ask of you, and your best will always be good enough.