My education at school was impeccable. It must’ve been good otherwise my grades wouldn’t have been so good I guess. But there was always something missing. Education of the heart/soul/self/…whatever you want to call it, I don’t think I got it.
My parents were great, they taught me virtues and manners by their example and I am grateful to them for the person that I have become today. But although they demonstrated ‘how to be good’ and made sure that I was a polite and well behaved child, virtues were never explicitly explained. I had heard the words ‘kind’ ‘tolerant’ ‘patient’ ‘fair’ etc but I had never heard them applied to myself, or even considered whether I needed to improve on any of them. I was only aware that I was either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
There are 2 levels of ‘being good’. The first is not breaking any laws of the country, or rules imposed on you by your parents and teachers. These are lines which should not be crossed. They are clear, and definite. On one side of the line is ‘good’. Cross the line and you are ‘bad’. It’s simple, straight forward and uncompromising. These lines do not bend. They do not take into account your circumstances. Cross them and you have branded yourself a ‘bad’ person.
The other level of ‘being good’ is aspirational. It is completely unenforced and rarely talked about outside of religious establishments. This level of being good is only regulated by yourself. You have the choice to decide what ‘being good’ means to you, and how far you want to take it. Most people think that they are good people. Why not? If they are law abiding then they are ‘good’ and not ‘bad’. But they can choose to be more than just scraping along at the law abiding level. E.g. Those women at work who laugh about others behind their backs are not ‘nice’ women. On the other hand, a boy helping his mum with the shopping, without being asked, is a ‘good boy’.
Being good = not breaking any laws / rules
Being good = making a conscious effort to be virtuous
What is unclear is exactly what we need to do to be called a ‘good girl’ or ‘good boy’. This seems to get harder the older we become, as we see things from many different points of view. We see that although ‘helping someone’ is good, it could also be seen as patronising. We can see that although we should give up our seat on the bus for pregnant ladies, there’s a risk they may not be pregnant! We can see that not joining in office gossip may ruin our chances of promotion. There are so many different levels and situations that it seems as long as we are law-abiding, that is ‘good’ enough.
For me, being good enough is not enough. And I think that’s true of most people, when they actually spend time thinking about it. Religion is one way that people are ‘forced’ to think about their actions and behaviour. In a lot of primary schools there is some character education implemented. My experience of ‘character’ education has been more of a journey, and a slow realisation of what ‘being good’ actually meant.
When I started secondary school I hung around with the ‘cool’ kids. I was so flattered that they allowed me to join them! I don’t think I need to elaborate on the fact that being with the cool kids was definitely ‘good’!. However, these were kids who regularly insulted the other people in their class, and each other. In our little friendship group there were cliques, partnerships and exclusive friendships, all designed to make one person in them feel important and to exclude others. My friends and I would write notes to each other which were insulting others. We would tease anyone not in our group for doing well in school, or for not doing well in school, or for what they were wearing, what music they listened to, what socks they wore etc. It was horrible, and I hated it, but I continued to do it because I wanted to be part of this group. Everyone knew that they were the ‘coolest’ kids in the class, and they had accepted me, so I stayed.
I guess my conscious got the better of me, or maybe I just couldn’t stand all those sly glances, backbiting comments and the constant wonder who we were meant to be friends with or not on a particular day. One morning I just decided I had had enough, and I left them. I deliberately chose to sit on my own in classes instead of with my so called friends. It didn’t take long for another group of girls to allow me in. A sign of their friendliness! It’s a hard choice for a teenager- be friends with the ‘cool’ group, who perhaps aren’t as ‘good’ or be friends with the ‘uncool’ group but enjoy their company. It’s a time when I re-assessed what ‘being good’ meant. Did it mean fashionable and respected? Or did it mean kind and considerate? Which would I rather be?
It’s not too dissimilar from options we make as adults. We can choose between a job which gives us lots of status, but goes against our morals (like some of those in the finance industry) or a job which has a low status but more closely aligns with our morals. It’s easy for ‘good’ to become skewed when you live in a capitalist environment with lots of advertising! We are constantly told that to be ‘good’ is to earn a lot, look young, have a large house / expensive car etc. It’s not so often advertised to us that ‘good’ is to be kind, generous, fair, tolerant etc.
At university I went down another turning point. I started off going out with all my friends, and enjoying myself, and having fun. I did notice though that there were 3 girls in my flat who were more restrained, more aloof and more self-assured. They were also the kindest, sweetest girls who never said a bad word about anyone. I really wanted to be good friends with them, but from the start their focus was on Christian Union and their friendship groups there. I could see how I would probably like to meet all of them, but not being Christian meant that this avenue was closed to me before it was even properly considered.
So I carried on drinking, partying, studying etc and just generally doing all the things at uni that people normally do. But I seemed to be afflicted with something that no one else was affected by – shame. I felt so ashamed after getting drunk. I was ashamed for the money I spent, the time wasted and the things I did. I didn’t feel like this was ‘good’ behaviour. I felt bad for the local residents and I got bored of drinking games but I did it because I was 19 and that was what you were meant to do at 19.
In the 3rd year I think I finally ‘rebelled’! I finally ‘came out’ as someone who was tired of all of the drinking games, who didn’t see the joy in sitting outside in the cold having drunken conversations with people who wouldn’t even remember and I didn’t want to dress in minimal clothing any more. You could say I was growing up, but in all honesty I think I had always felt like this. Since then I’ve been ‘free’ to be myself. It’s felt amazing to be free from peer pressures! I no longer do things just because everyone else does them and I don’t like things just because everyone else likes them. Feeling free from social constraints and peer pressure means we have the ability to assess what we think is ‘good’ and to act that way with conviction, even if it is not what others do.
I’m no longer afraid to say to people that I feel differently to them. As long as I am being ‘good’ then my interests, etc, don’t matter. For example, when all the people around me are admiring an expensive car, I feel comfortable saying that I think cars depreciate far too much and I’d rather spend the money on something else! I am comfortable telling people that I’d rather buy board games than clothes. I feel fine letting people know that I got my handbag from a charity shop. I feel no shame or embarrassment when it comes to any of my hobbies or interests.
Similarly, and more importantly, I have found the courage to speak up at work when I disagree with how a customer or a colleague is being treated. If I think someone is acting in a ‘bad’ way, I will perhaps suggest a different method that they could use to deal with the situation. I hope that I don’t sound smarmy or annoying when I do it!!
We all want to be ‘good’, but without a clear set of guidelines we have to make our own judgements. I think as long as we are thinking about it, and considering what we are doing, then that is a good start!!
What do you think it means to be good? Has your opinion changed over time?