A friend emailed after having a terrible time at a social gathering. Various people had teased her and made hurtful remarks.
“I know you believe that all people are good, but I’m just not seeing that,” she challenged.
Her email gave me pause. Did I believe this? I wasn’t sure.
What I do believe is that we all have the potential to do good, but we don’t always actually do it. The reasons we fall short are many. Here are only a few:
- We’re under the influence of anger, envy, greed, apathy or another negative emotion that prevents us from being our best selves.
- It’s not convenient. Case in point: Over the weekend, I didn’t give money to a homeless person at an intersection. This wasn’t because I didn’t have the money and it wasn’t out of greed. It was merely because he was standing toward the right of my car and I didn’t feel like reaching across the passenger seat to hand money out the window. (And, yes, I’m embarrassed to admit this).
- Often, being good requires us to share something we would much rather keep to ourselves, whether it’s money, food off our plate, or our umbrella.
- It’s scary. It’s not easy to stick up for the person all of your friends are making fun of. It’s a lot easier to go along with group think, even if that group think is wrong.
- We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking we’re justified. I’m guessing that slave owners in the 1700s found a way to mentally justify their actions. I doubt they thought of themselves as bad people despite the widespread suffering they inflicted on others every single day.
- We’re tapped. Without enough rest, few of us are capable of being our best selves.
- We’re distracted. Who has time for good deeds when she’s in the middle of a hot game of Words for Friends?
I could go on. Could you?
Perhaps most interesting: many people accidentally harm when they intend to do good. Think of the man who does the dishes because his wife has been complaining about how he never does anything around the house. Then he announces that he’s done the dishes because he’s so happy that he’s finally been able to do something good for his wife. She, however, responds with irritation because she can’t believe he feels he deserves an award for something she does everyday.
Or think of the friend who is trying to cheer up another friend, but accidentally says something hurtful and doesn’t even realize it.
Or the person who posts something to Facebook thinking that he’s just brightened the days of many, only to later realize he’s just pissed off 568 people and he doesn’t know why or how.
I’m guessing you can think of many examples from your own life.
Perhaps most important is this: it’s pointless to worry too much about whether other people are good or bad. After all, blaming other people for our misery never gets us anywhere. It doesn’t make us any happier and it doesn’t change the world for the better. It only mires us in an unfulfilling holding pattern.
What’s much more fruitful is this: continually trying to be a better person. I can’t work on you, but I can work on me. I try to start everyday with the intention to do good and bring light into the lives of others. I do this despite the fact that I always fall short of this goal. I lose my temper. I daydream while my kid is telling me something she thinks is very important. I forget to check in with friends. I fail to help those who are less fortunate and I get irritated that my puppy does things that puppies do. And, sometimes, I don’t even remember that I want to be a good person.
But that’s all okay. None of that makes me a bad person. It just makes me human. It’s also what makes life rich and interesting.
So I wake up the next day, and I try all over again.
How about you? Do you believe some people are good and others are evil? Discuss.
Note: I’d like to periodically feature posts on life’s big questions so we can all hash them out together. What big life questions do you think I should cover?
Side note #1: I’ll run Part 2 of balancing marriage with parenthood later this week.
Side note #2: If you are reading this by email and would like to comment on the post, click through here. That will take you to the blog where you can leave a comment. If you merely reply to the email, your comment goes into my email inbox and I’m the only person who can see it.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.