By the end of the year, I felt tired and overwhelmed, ready to peel away onionskin layers of regret. That’s most likely why, when I wandered by a Little Free Library, Nick Hornby’s book “How to be Good” called out to me, the bright yellow cover a beacon, the title offering redemption for mistakes large and small.
The book tells the story of a doctor boldly (and hilariously) navigating the rocky road of self-improvement: “Just because I wasn’t good,” the protagonist muses, “it didn’t mean I was bad.” But as I reached the novel’s end, I realized I had not arrived at the answer to what exactly it means to be good. So, I asked Mr. Hornby.
“It’s a constant theme, isn’t it?” he emailed in response. “Especially now, when we have no excuse not to know what’s going on. We are bombarded with images of others less fortunate than ourselves. What are we supposed to do about it?”
This is the question. What are we to do? As we struggle to confront an ever-growing number of crises, how can we be good to ourselves and others? The starting point is understanding what we mean by “goodness.”
Rachana Kamtekar, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, explained goodness by way of ancient Greek philosophy: “For Plato, goodness is the same as happiness. We desire appetitively because of our bodies. We desire emotionally because of our sense of self in contact with other human beings. And we also have rational desires to understand how to do what’s best. Our goodness requires all of these capacities to be developed and then expressed.”
This can be a lifelong process — something that is never perfectly realized but should always be struggled for. “Goodness is impermanent and organic, meaning it can progress as well as regress,” said Chan Phap Dung, a senior monk at the Plum Village meditation center founded by the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. And that is why, he said, we have to be steadfast in caring for ourselves and the world at large. “In politics and culture, in the media and corporations, we have cultivated conditions that have produced a lot of violence, discrimination and despair for which there is a collective level of responsibility.”
Because many of us have a complicated relationship with what it means to be good, it can help to reframe the subject and widen it. “Some people flinch when they ponder whether or not they or others are ‘good’ because the words ‘good’ and ‘goodness’ have long been associated with obedience,” the author and former “Dear Sugars” podcast host Cheryl Strayed shared in response to a query from The Times.
“I reject that definition,” she said. “Goodness is expressed through lovingkindness, generosity of spirit and deed, and the thoughtful consideration of others. It can be as simple as offering to let someone ahead of you in line and as complicated as making yearslong sacrifices of your freedom because someone you love needs your help. Over the course of a lifetime, most of us do both.”
Goodness is an act of being and doing, requiring that we not only engage but reflect on the intentions behind our actions. Goodness may give rise to immediate satisfaction or demand sustained sacrifice (as those who have fought to bring about social change can attest). Regardless, using it as a lodestar helps point us to what really matters.
The insights below — gathered from a variety of people who think a lot about what it means to be good — are far-reaching. Some suggestions are small, others audacious. Make them your own. Allow them to spark a bit more goodness in you.
9 ways to be good
Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author
“Kindness is at the center of what it means to be good. It may require very little from us, or the opposite. It may require words and action, or restraint and silence. Everything that can be said can be said with kindness. Every tough position we have to take can be taken with kindness. No exceptions. Being a good person requires that we work toward that unrealized world where the dignity and integrity of all human beings, all life, are honored and respected.”
Brother Chan Phap Dung, senior monk, Plum Village
“In the Buddhist tradition, the training starts with learning how to stop and come back to the present moment and enjoy our breathing. We stop to recognize what is happening within us and around us: our feelings, our thinking, whether our body is relaxed or in tension, who is there in front of us or what are we doing. With repetition, we begin to see and understand ourselves better — and choose to do one thing rather than another.”
Ask hard questions.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, civil rights activist
“As a public theologian, I tend to look at what has lifted us when we found ourselves at our lowest — what has called us to a better place. How are we, as a nation and as a people, using life itself to create good for the poor and broken and captive and for those who are made to feel unaccepted? We must constantly raise that question as we live life — seeking to answer it not only individually, but together. We need to embrace those deepest moral values that call us to, first and foremost, seek love, truth, justice and concern for others.”
Put challenges in perspective.
Dan Ariely, behavioral economist, Duke University
“In Judaism, it says that if you save one person, you can look at yourself as somebody who has saved the whole world. In that regard, what goodness means is to scale the problem down to the size where we can have an impact — and then have the impact. If you think about global warming or poverty, you say to yourself, “I can’t; I can’t solve it.” But if you think about one ton of CO2 or one person in poverty, then we can have an effect.”
Hold yourself accountable.
Rachana Kamtekar, professor of philosophy, Cornell University
“You have to know what your different motivations are, know how strong they are and if you can get some of them to pull against the others. I was a smoker in my 20s and 30s. Like many smokers, I resolved to quit on multiple occasions. When I was 40, I told my son and his buddies that I had been a smoker and had quit. I knew if I ever smoked again, I was going to have to tell them. My aversion to those kids thinking of me as a smoker swamped any desire I had to smoke. When I added to my rational resolution this prospect of something like shame — that I was going to have to face these kids and say, “I am a smoker” — it changed.”
Buy with intention.
Rose Marcario, C.E.O., Patagonia
“We’re facing an existential climate crisis, intractable social issues and unprecedented income inequality. Think of yourself as a citizen instead of a consumer and vote with your dollars. Buy organic because, with chemical agriculture, we are doing irrevocable damage to topsoil, pollinators, oceans and rivers due to chemical runoff. And buy quality. Make sure that whoever you buy from takes responsibility for the entire life cycle of their product. Most importantly, buy only what you need. Keep your stuff longer and keep it in use longer.”
Invest in the greater good.
Ron Freund, vice president, Social Equity Group
“A good investment is one that integrates your value system with the investments that you make and offers a risk level and return that meets your needs. Firms in the industry have demonstrated clearly there’s no loss from investing in a socially responsible portfolio. Consider green bonds that have a specific focus to help the community. It could be toward climate change, church retrofits, or housing that supports seniors and low-income people.”
Cheryl Strayed, author and former “Dear Sugars” host and columnist
“Cultivate a sense of optimism. Remember to be grateful. Be happy for others when good things happen to them. Stop complaining about the people, jobs or situations that make you miserable and find a way to change it or end it instead. Go for a walk every day. Goodness is action. It’s being kind, honest, considerate, respectful and generous. It’s holding love in your heart.”
And, no matter what, keep trying.
Nick Hornby, author
“I think all one can ever really do is to try and keep goodness close to you as an ambition — make sure that it’s one of the ways in which you think.
The New York Times