Who’s a Good Girl: The Importance of Being Good

I won’t always write essay-like posts, but for my first one, why not be as formal yet incomplete as possible? Unlike Yvonne, who is processing her thoughts and emotions, I have created a false sense of security and optimism for myself, to mask the pessimism and grief that I should be feeling. I have, however, written an incomplete essay-esque piece on why we should be Good, although it stops abruptly in the middle and I require much advice, hopefully from friends, family, and readers / anyone in a more positive mind space than I.

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Who’s a good girl? You are! Yes, you are, you’re such a good girl…

It would be foolish to attempt to define precisely what actions and behaviours result in a person to be categorized as “good”; what qualifies as good and the extent to which we enact and embody such actions and behaviours are subjective and are unique to each person. It would also be foolish to deny that, in contrast to good, people can be bad or “evil”, and similarly, the cause and extent of a person’s “badness” is perceived differently between individuals. Regardless of what we define as good or bad, every person differs in their frequency of choosing good or bad actions, as well as their motivations to do so. It is in this ability to choose that humans are unlike any other species: each choice is indicative of an individual’s morality, at least pertaining to that one action or behaviour. It is in the accumulation of these choices that ultimately can be used to define ourselves as good or bad people. Assuming this is the truth and how the world operates, it then prompts the question: why should we be good? Why should a person choose good over evil, not only once, but enough so that they are deemed to be good?

Mark Twain believed that humans were the only truly evil creatures, as we have a sense of morality; in whatever we do, we can choose to act to be good or evil. This morality separates us from animals, as they do not base their actions on what is morally right or wrong, but simply what will allow them to survive and procreate. Humans not only choose what will allow them to survive longer, but act in their best interests, whatever those may be. Although some acts, such as murder, can generally be agreed to be bad, most decisions that every human makes on a daily basis can be subjective to where it rests on a scale of goodness to badness. Everybody defines what it takes to be good differently, in terms of actions, behaviours, and extents and frequencies to which we must perform these good actions, as well in ratio to our bad actions. Perhaps following a religious text or a super incredibly factual WikiHow article on how to be good can guide a person to be the best that they can be, but the issue still remains on why we should adhere to these guides at all.

Not surprisingly, there are a handful of academic papers, namely from those in Ethics, that somewhat address this topic of goodness. For instance, Kenneth Strike from McMaster University has an article entitled “Why be good?”, which more or less analyses why we choose to “do good”. Strike deems that there are three types of people who need reasons to do good, as opposed to those who naturally want to do so: a person who understands what is right, but does not find that motivating enough to choose that option; a person who theoretically understands that morals exist and that perhaps there is a right and wrong, but also does not find this theory motivating enough; and a person who chooses to do right only if it serves to benefit them in an additional way.

This outlook seems pessimistic and we hope that these types of people do not exist too often and would like to believe that people choose to be good simply because “it is the right thing to do”. While we are not limited to these options, it does not take much effort to see that humans fall into these categories much more easily than we would like to imagine. A dive into the academic and formal world of Yahoo Answers brings forth dozens of posts asking “Why be good (?????)”. It appears that those asking for help either are facing a moral dilemma or have a paper to write for their Ethics class. The replies to these posts can be quite fascinating and are not necessarily uniform, but there are, however, some common replies. The most troubling answer, in this author’s opinion, is that people should be good because of karma; what goes around comes around. We should be good because, ultimately, we are looking out for ourselves. Karma used in this manner is entirely different from the concept of “paying it forward”; the latter is based on the notion that there will be a ripple effect of good that is projected outwards and into the world, as opposed to the former concept, wherein you expect good to circle back so that you are to benefit again.

Logically, these are not the only motivations to doing good and we are not trapped to such questionable views on morality. It can easily noted that besides a slightly butchered view of what karma is, Buddhism, Hinduism, and every other religion dictate a method to be good, even going so far as to name it the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Less self-serving and more empathetic, the Golden Rule outlines a method to be good while also justifying the action.

My problem is that I don’t really know why we should be good. I’d like to believe in what I’m writing, and while, logically, I understand that it’s important to be good and it’s too easy to stray, I’ve lost my belief in..the good of being good.

I’m binge watching Once Upon a Time right now and in the last episode, Snow White, the ultimate believer in being good, chose to do bad because all being good has ever gotten her has been loss. She lost those she loved and time and time again, she faced hardships and has been ripped from those who were important to her. So she acted differently this time and did something evil. At the end of the episode, it looked like she regretted it, but I’m not a fairytale or TV character; if or when I choose to be bad, will I come back from it? Why should I want to?

On my dad’s online obituary (ah, the wonders of modern technology), my sister wrote his biography and mentioned that he was proof that good guys finish first. My dad wasn’t my Jiminy Cricket for everything I do (I swear, I don’t know how much Once Upon a Time I’ve watched lately), but he was a darn good role model to be good and to do everything with love. I suppose I’m struggling with this particular phrase, “finishing first”, in a way similar to how in French, to say that you are finished with something, it’s “j’ai fini” (I have finished), as opposed to “je suis fini” (I am finished…from existence).

I suppose I’m associating being good with dying young, and thus I don’t really want to try to be good anymore, but the remaining good in me doesn’t want that to happen and is reaching out for some guidance to show me the importance of being good.

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7 thoughts

  1. I don’t imagine this will be all that helpful, but here it is anyway: it is my personal belief that as much as we like to imagine that good things happen to good people, this karmic reasoning is rather flawed. Sometimes, for no reason other than the fact that life is always finding new ways to make things tough, bad things happen to good people. They just do. There’s no explanation, no rhyme or reason, just terrible things happening to people who don’t deserve it. On the other end of the spectrum, we have people who have amazing things happen to them even if they haven’t worked for it, earned it, deserved it.

    This is what I have to believe because how else does one explain the children that get sick so early on in their innocent little lives? They haven’t even lived long enough to make any bad choices yet so they are certainly not being targeted for their lack of goodness. Sometimes, terrible things happen. Sometimes they happen to really wonderful people. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to prevent them or overcome them. Sometimes they just happen.

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  2. I think it’s very normal to question what you are questioning, especially in the face of your loss. It is times like these, when your assumptive world has been shattered, that these questions come up. I know for me it did. This is a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke that we often use with our hospice volunteers:
    “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

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  3. I don’t know where this is going to end up but here we go.

    I think we choose to be good because it’s all we can control. At some point we became aware of how unfair the world really is. You’ve seen it in a lot more way than most. We are helpless bystanders as the many influencers in our lives (the nature of the earth, other people, microscopic organisms) lift us up, toss us down, and treat us as their playthings. So much of who we are and what happens to us is intentional and we work for… but then these horrible things strike with no consideration for the kinds of wonderful people they harm. These inanimate things have no morals. They cannot discriminate based on caliber of character.

    But we can. We have this one thing we get to choose, one thing that can’t be taken away by random acts of tragedy. We get to choose how we act, how we treat each other. You and I grew up a lot together and I remember our many talks about how “real” life was getting as we stared at the many complexities of reality that laid before us.

    You know that I’ve had someone close to me that wasn’t good to me. I was made to feel less than. I was made to wonder what was wrong with me to be treated like that. Why wasn’t anyone else being treated like that? Why did they all feel safe when I didn’t? I had been good. I read books and did well in school, I made nice friends, I played sports, I was respectful. Didn’t this mean that good things should happen? Wasn’t I safe?

    I could have reacted to what continously went on in a lot of ways. And over the years, I think I have. I’ve kept quiet about it and pretended it didn’t affect me every day. I’ve gotten drunk and cried and beaten a tree with my purse. I’ve made jokes about it to make it hurt less. Because how do you act when you are reconciling that despite your efforts to follow the rules and be good, life slapped you with a big “f you”?

    What has felt best, in my experience, is remembering my pain each time I meet someone or interact with someone. Sounds nuts and painful eh. Our stories are of course very different, but you’ll see where I’m going. Nowadays, I try really hard to make other people happy, and a lot of that is because I carry my memories of pain around with me and don’t want others to feel this way. When I feel lost, or scared, or like I don’t deserve to exist, I find my happiness in how others respond to goodness. When people are surprised at how friendly you are. Or that you remembered a small fact about them. Or that you just try to be there. This bit of happiness is amazing because I’m like, I don’t know every bit of your life because that’s just how it goes, but I can understand the world of complexity in someone’s experiences in life. And maybe they had it hard too in one way or another. And their world gets a bit brighter by me adding some good. And that makes me feel like my life is brighter, and that one day someone will randomly smile at me or do something nice with the same brightness and hope in their heart. I don’t know if this is even a healthy response to what I feel, but it’s how I get through.

    ‘Good’ or ‘goodness’ is extremely nuanced and complex, but goodness to me is how we treat ourselves and others. We are able to choose good. That’s why we are good. Because we don’t choose the horrible random things. And a lot of the time we can’t stop them. But we can choose to lift up others. And to lift ourselves up. And allow others to lift us when we can’t. We can choose good. The world can’t take that from us.

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  4. I think I want to start with your idea of “finishing first”. I don’t have any quotes to back me up on this but I’ll try to put my thoughts into words.

    When we’re talking about finishing, what are we actually talking about? Being physically alive, or our “life”? The fact is that everyone dies in the end. Good or evil, there is no way right now to stop this. So we can’t really use it as a metric for anything unless we really do think that someone or something out there is keeping track and deciding when every person on earth will finish being alive. You are free to do so, but that’s when questions like “why do bad things happen to good people?” start driving you insane.

    So let’s look at the other idea – that of “finishing” life. Does life have goals? For most people they would involve being successful, having a family, etc. a key part of which would be raising children who will continue your legacy.

    With that in mind, I think the answer to the question of “Why be good?” is somewhat clear if we look at your dad. He had 3 children who are “good”, loving people and made those around him happy. If you ask me, it sounds like he succeeded in life. Someone who is not “good” (using the general definition involving altruism and kindness) would not have this success or ever truly “finish” their life.

    Other people are the reason to be good. They may not always deserve it or appreciate it but in the end there’s no other real metric to measure your life with. What we leave behind affects people, and the actions we take in life determine whether it is in a good way or a bad one.

    So did your dad “finish first”? Yes. But I’d prefer to say he completed life first by being as good as he was. As long as you remember him with love I don’t think he could have done any better, and I’m sure that you will have the same success one day. Just hopefully not quite so early.

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  5. Choose to be good because there is so very little that we have power over some days. Random horrible things… we can’t control them and they hurt us in ways we think we’ll never be able to bear. But we can choose to be good and inspire goodness in others. Even if it’s just a big old fuck you to the chaos that is life, we choose to be good. Goodness makes the chaos bearable, for ourselves and others. We humans are flawed but we fight like mad to feel like we control our own lives and the world, when unfortunately we frequently don’t.

    It’s really one of those intangible things that is so important but so hard to explain why.

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  6. As someone who has lost many people close to me in my young life, I sympathize and understand where you’re coming from. My mother and I struggled with our belief in the possibly of a god when we watched the young mother next door beat cancer only to die of a common cold picked up through the recycled air on her plane ride home from the family’s celibritory vacation.

    Questions like the ones you’ve raised are common when you’ve suffered a loss. The worlds rules just don’t seem to make sense. I know you’ll find your own answers to your questions in time. Its kind of part of the grieving process, which is what I mainly wanted to address. Everyone handles grief differently. Yes, there is the huge societal pressure to become a weeping mess when someone dies, and if, like me, that isn’t your first response, you feel like you’ve betrayed them. Its not that you don’t love them, though you may feel like you’re the most heartless creature at the time. You will cry. It might come years later. I find myself mourning my grandfathers death frequently these days… And he died back in 2004! Please don’t feel bad that youre not responding in the way your sister is. You aren’t feeling the loss any less than she is, and you certainly didn’t love him less either. Everyone mourns differently. Consider it owing an IOU of grief to your dad… Which your brain may decide to repay while waiting in line at the grocery store years from now.

    Re goodness: I agree with MellyBean: “Choose to be good because there is so very little that we have power over some days. Random horrible things… we can’t control them and they hurt us in ways we think we’ll never be able to bear. But we can choose to be good and inspire goodness in others. Even if it’s just a big old fuck you to the chaos that is life, we choose to be good. Goodness makes the chaos bearable, for ourselves and others.” I believe people who have suffered a loss, especially by something as unpredictable and arbritary as cancer, have experienced the chaos and fuckery of life. Your life has xhanged and now you’ve got lots of questions. They don’t need to be answered right away. Regardless of your answers, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Though its very hard, try to focus on the good memories and just take it one day at a time

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  7. Can’t speak to why we lose loved ones or help in dealing with that fact. By it’s own nature, I don’t think anyone can, or can do it well at least. As for “being a good person,” I’ll share my opinion on it. Hopefully it’ll provide some amount of help or value for you.

    I’ll start off in saying that I agree with you in that categorizing decisions, actions or a person as “good” or “evil” is a misstep. People love simplicity. Simplicity is attractive, clean, and goes down smooth. However, absolutely nothing about life or people is simple, especially not morality. Morality is variable from person to person, era to era, culture to culture, etc. The number of variables that go into making a decision and, as such, judging a decision and person is immeasurable. Due to this, I personally don’t have much confidence in categorizing anything or anyone as good or evil. There are way too many factors that are impossible for me to know to accurately and fairly make that distinction.

    Because of that, on the question of “why should we be good,” I can’t give an answer at all. Instead, I’ve chosen to ask myself “how should we live?” To that, somewhat hypocritically, I’ve chosen two simplified answers or rules for myself. The first is “to the benefit of myself and those I love.”

    As you’ve tragically experienced, life can end abruptly and unexpectedly. Thus, my aim is to enjoy the life that I have, and contribute to the enjoyment of my loved one’s lives as much as I can. Ensuring my own peace and happiness through my decisions is a pretty easy thing to do. A lot easier and instinctual than measuring good versus bad. That said, we’re all in this life together, and you’ve chosen me, as a friend, to share a chunk of it with. If my decisions ever harm you or anyone else I love, then I have failed in contributing to your enjoyment in life. That’s the measure I’ve chosen to judge if I’m being too selfish or wrong in my actions.

    My second answer to “how should we live” is “for the positive vibes.” An off-shoot of the previous point and cousin of “don’t be a dick.” I choose to be polite and positive (spreading good vibes), in response to everyone and every situation I can. Again, we’re all in this life together. Who am I to ruin that for anyone. However, if anyone or anything responds, in turn, with negativity or bad vibes, I just won’t bother with it. I value my time too much to allow negativity to bother or have a significant effect on me. It’ll just be one less thing to worry about and more time to enjoy what I love.

    Those are where my thoughts are at the moment and the rules that I’ve given myself to live by. I won’t concern myself with whether I’m a good or bad person, to different people I could be both at the same time. Again, though, I’ve reduced a complex and messy concept into a simplified solution for myself. I fully expect my opinions to change and abandon it, or for it to fail or implode on itself sometime in the future. But I have found some amount of peace in my place in life at this time through it, and whether it can help or not, I sincerely hope you do to.

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