I’m not a good person. Neither, reader, are you. Even if I don’t know you personally, I can assert the truth of this.
I haven’t killed anyone, not even close. I was raised to say “please” and “thank you” and to treat people with respect even if they didn’t necessarily deserve it, and for the most part I manage to do this. Still not a good person. I despise a certain infamous political figure so much that while I don’t actively wish undue suffering upon him, I can’t say I was even remotely sad that he tested positive for COVID-19, and I have removed from my social media feed anyone who would say that makes me a bad person. Because guess what—I’m not that either.
Maybe you work hard every day without complaining. Maybe you don’t hesitate to give generously to charities even though you aren’t exactly a millionaire yourself. Maybe you love animals, don’t litter, support small business, and carpool, or at least you did pre-pandemic and would do it now even though it’s irritating being subject to someone else’s taste in driving music. And maybe you would never remove anyone from your social media feed just because they disagreed with you. That’s swell, but don’t dislocate your shoulder patting yourself on the back.
The problem with thinking you’re a good person is that it’s a dangerous setup for some powerful cognitive dissonance. Anything that threatens your self-image as a good person has to be dealt with, and sometimes “dealing with it” means denying it. I am a good person. Therefore, one’s reasoning goes, the people who are my friends, the companies that make the products I buy, the politicians I vote for, surely they must be good too because if they weren’t, my association with them means that…well, they must be good, plain and simple, because I am a good person.
There is a whole world of other people out there, a whole universe of other worlds. Can we really be so small-minded as to imagine that our own self-image is what truly matters? Am I a good person? Who cares? I know I have the ability to help or to hurt. The thing I do to help someone today may end up hurting someone else tomorrow. If I know this and I do it anyway, I can sit around justifying why I’m still a good person despite tomorrow’s damage or I can keep trying to help. I can learn from the consequences of the action I took and see if there isn’t some other, better way to get it done.
I believe the action you take that truly makes the world a better place will not be followed by a feeling of glowing self-esteem. It will be followed by uncertainty. You won’t necessarily know beyond the immediate moment whether you’ve really made a lasting, positive difference. If that sounds too depressing to you, there’s something else that follows, beyond and far greater than the uncertainty.
You try to do right by the world. You never really know for sure if you have. But each action you take is done out of the hope that it does do right, and that, far more than any sense of your own virtue, is what keeps you doing right. It doesn’t end. You never stop, because you’re never sure. And because of that, you never give up hope.