Has anyone ever said that you were a good person? Is being good something you strive to be or aspire toward?
In “How to Be Good,” Simran Sethi sought out a therapist, a scholar, a monk, a C.E.O. and others to learn about bringing our best to everything we do, every day. She begins by exploring the meaning of 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.”
Ms. Sethi shared the insights of a variety of people who think a lot about what it means to be good. Here are four of their suggestions:
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.”
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.”
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
Do you feel you are a good person? Why or why not? Are there ways you wish you were better?
Cheryl Strayed said that goodness “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.” Do you agree? What is your definition of goodness?
Which insights and suggestions from the article resonated with you most? Explain why.
Where do your ideas about goodness, and morals more generally, come from? Have they been shaped by friends and family, culture or religious beliefs?
Has anyone ever said that you were a good person? If yes, what do you think they meant? How did that make you feel?
Nick Hornby said, “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.” Is goodness an important goal for you? Do you strive to be good?
What suggestions would you give to others who seek to be good?
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.