In recent years, I have noticed a trend: my friends and acquaintances have been justifying their not-so-great actions with the phrase, “but I’m not a bad person.”
To me, that is a particularly nondescript way of defining one’s self. Because at any given time, the sum of the things that do define you will be far smaller than the sum of the things that don’t. I am a 27-year-old man. I am not a 26-year-old, 25-year-old, 53-year-old etc.
Doesn’t it make more sense to define yourself by stating what/who you are? In other words, wouldn’t it be easier to say, “I am a good person.”
But therein lies the problem. That statement would force us to confront the truth: we don’t feel that we are inherently good. And to make that statement and to be lying in doing so would be, well, ironic.
So, how do we define what it means to be a “good person?” That question is probably a bit too lofty of an undertaking to answer in a blog post. Therefore, I will pose another one: is it a worthwhile endeavor to attempt to define what it means to be good?
When I first endeavored to write this post, I asked a significant number of colleagues that question. Invariably, we all concluded that the answer was likely “yes” but we could not put a finger on why.
In my opinion, we as humans have a unique focus on intent. It’s not usually a person’s actions alone that define them for us. We care about the things that led up to the action. That’s why whenever a mass shooting occurs the news anchor remarks about the defendant’s facial expression as they are sentenced, and we learn about the pre-existing conditions that person was living in. It is unnerving if that person sits there emotionless or if it becomes apparent that there was nothing remarkable about their life before the incident. Meanwhile, we are relieved if they are repentant.
This same instinct is what allows us to forgive a child who breaks our favorite vase or writes on the walls. Likewise, this is what allows us to give our best friend a pass when they say something that offends us. We are concerned with the hearts of our cohabitants and we understand nuance on a fundamental level.
Additionally, when we look introspectively, we attempt to define ourselves in regard to this amorphous set of values that we have been establishing internally our whole lives. And, well… I think it’s worth it. There are moments when we cut ourselves some slack because we know that we don’t mean to devalue our relationships when we flake at the last minute. In that moment our intent matters in helping define ourselves to ourselves. “I’m not a bad person.”
Now we are back where we started. As I stated earlier, defining what it means to be a good person in its entirety is a fool’s errand. But it does seem as though we are always doing so in part. Based on the previous example (flaking on your friend), we see that you could hardly call yourself a good person just because your intent wasn’t malicious. In this way, not being a bad person is passive.
But in order to be considered (even if it is only to some degree) a good person, you’d likely have to do something positive. Perhaps something like… showing up? This is just my opinion, but it seems that intent alone cannot define us either. It must be paired with action.
I know these examples will be cliché but they make the point. Mother Theresa would have just been a lady with nice thoughts if she hadn’t acted in Calcutta. Kobe Bryant would have likely been another dad with unfulfilled dreams if he hadn’t gone to the gym daily to work on his shot. See what I mean? Actions paired withintent define us.
The reason that I say all this is to affirm something that I started this post saying. It is important to consider what it means to be a good person.
Consideration is defined on dictionary.com as:
1: careful thought, typically over a period of time
2: thoughtfulness and sensitivity toward others
Consideration spurs intent. Intent leads to actions. Actions become habits. And I would argue that habits, given time, end up weaving themselves into our legacy (the way people think of/define us). Being defined as a good person doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in relationship. When we look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Am I a good person?”, we have to consider how our actions/habits generally affect others.
And while we may never agree on the full definition of what it means to be a “good person,” it’s important to consider it. Because consideration causes us to change. Change is the agent of growth. And growth may just be the purpose of life.
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on Being a Good Person from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.