Our greatness lies in our power of creation. At one moment there is nothing. Then — puff! — a new work of art! Perhaps a new song, poem, story, painting, musical composition, or piece of sculpture. Or perhaps a good deed. It may come in the form of an approving look, a gentle kiss, a warm touch, a radiant smile, a burst of laughter, or an encouraging word.
Goodness and beauty are similar. They both nurture us. Beauty delights the senses and goodness nourishes the soul. Performing good deeds is like planting flowers in the souls of others. Acts of goodness are beautiful acts and those who do them are beautiful people. What is goodness? It is whatever lightens the burdens we carry during our life journey. It is not only the acts we do, but also the people we are.
It’s astonishing that most of us are good when it is so easy to be cruel. And don’t misjudge those few who seem to be taking a reprieve from kindness. After all:
There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly becomes any of us
To talk about the rest of us.
−Edward Wallis Hoch
Although the majority of us are perfectly good people, we are not perfectly good. For we’re not perfect. So, it’s not surprising the Chinese say, “There are only two perfectly good people. One is dead, and the other unborn.”
There are degrees of goodness. In its lowest form, we are passively good. That is, rather than doing good, we merely avoid doing evil. For example, parents may decide to stop criticizing their children. Although this isn’t the highest form of goodness, it is important in the eyes of the children. For their anxiety, anguish, and stress will be relieved when the brutal criticism ends. However, it would be even better, or a higher form of goodness, if the parents were to praise, encourage, and inspire them, instead of merely refrain from criticism. Parents who stop criticizing are like parents who stop starving their children and now offer them bread and water. But those who actively offer praise and encouragement are like parents who feed their children nutritious and sumptuous meals.
The highest form of good is when we do it expecting nothing in return. It is like being the sun, picking no favorites, and offering our warmth to all. Most of us probably believe we fall in this group. We are kind and generous people, aren’t we? But if that were the case, why is it that after being betrayed we say, “How could they do that to me? After all I’ve done for them!” Doesn’t that type of thinking suggest we were keeping score and expecting something in return for our goodness?
Why bother being good? Did you say, “Why bother?” Phillips Brooks can tell you why, “No man or woman can be strong, gentle, pure, and good, without the world being better for it and without someone being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.” Isn’t that good enough reason?
Another reason is we are one family. I’m not talking about a grand, moral concept, but about simple common-sense and science. You see, if we merely go back fifty generations, the family trees of every human on earth merge into a common tree (according to geneticists J.B.S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and others). To grasp the weight of this statement, pretend you’re sitting in a subway. As you look at the passengers around you, you see Pakistanis, Somalis, Vietnamese, Russians, Greeks, Chinese, or any number of other nationalities. Now, no matter whom you see, no matter how different they may appear, everyone in the subway is at least a fiftieth cousin of yours! Some are closer. But we’re all cousins. The separation we see is imaginary. We’re all one family. That’s good enough reason to be good to everyone.
Another reason to be good is it is our nature to be so. We were meant to be good. That’s why we feel good, or are happy, when we do good. Perhaps the biggest reason for doing good is people are in need. Pitying their suffering is humane, but relieving it is Godlike. Their pain is an opportunity for us to become good, for we become good by doing good. Acting with kindness is its own reward because when we nurture the souls of others, we nurture our own.
How shall we do good? Not in a single act, but in an endless stream of acts. Not because others have been good to us, but because all are deserving. Not by merely doing good, but by doing it in a good way. Not by choosing between good and evil, but by choosing between what we want to do and what we ought to do. Not by thinking of ourselves, but by placing ourselves in the shoes of our cousins.
There are obvious ways to do good: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned. But there are other ways of being good that may not be immediately obvious. One such way is to work on yourself. Remove prejudices and narrow-mindedness. Be humble. Pride builds walls; humility tears them down. Above all, stop being nasty and claiming you did it “for their own good.” That makes as much sense as trying to do good through evil. It’s a contradiction. You can’t do it, so don’t try. If you’re serious about doing good, you can follow the example of Ben Franklin who started each day by asking himself, “What good shall I do today?” and ending it by asking, “What good have I done today?”
Although I’ve covered some of the major characteristics of goodness, I’ll reiterate, expand, and clarify by quoting from the wisdom of others.
1. Goodness is doing the right thing even if it bears no fruit. “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
2.Goodness is doing the right thing even when it’s hard to do. After all, “When someone has been mean to you, why would you want to be good to them? You wouldn’t want to. That’s what makes it hard. You do it anyway. Being good is hard. Much harder than being bad.” (Jeanne DuPrau) And “It is easy to perform a good action, but not easy to acquire a settled habit of performing such actions.” (Aristotle)
3. Goodness is the path to spiritual growth. “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” (Martin Luther)
4. Goodness flows from action, not ritual. “Goodness is about what you do. Not who you pray to.” (Terry Pratchett)
5. Goodness is for contributing to the world. “You are good. But it is not enough just to be good. You must be good for something. You must contribute good to the world. The world must be a better place for your presence. And the good that is in you must be spread to others… In this world so filled with problems, so constantly threatened by dark and evil challenges, you can and must rise above mediocrity, above indifference. You can become involved and speak with a strong voice for that which is right.” (Gordon B. Hinckley)
6. Goodness flows from an understanding of the vastness of life. “As spiritual searchers we need to become freer and freer of the attachment to our own smallness in which we get occupied with me-me-me. Pondering on large ideas or standing in front of things which remind us of a vast scale can free us from acquisitiveness and competitiveness and from our likes and dislikes. If we sit with an increasing stillness of the body, and attune our mind to the sky or to the ocean or to the myriad stars at night, or any other indicators of vastness, the mind gradually stills and the heart is filled with quiet joy. Also recalling our own experiences in which we acted generously or with compassion for the simple delight of it without expectation of any gain can give us more confidence in the existence of a deeper goodness from which we may deviate.” (Ravi Ravindra)
7. True goodness is not an isolated event but an endless stream. “If you have done good, set your mind upon it so that it may be repeated over and over again. Allow yourself to be pleased by good. Accumulating good is joyful.” (Buddha) And “To make one good action succeed another is the perfection of goodness.” (Ali Ibn-Abi-Talib)
8. Goodness is done for goodness’ sake. “Freedom, morality, and the human dignity of the individual consists precisely in this; that he does good not because he is forced to do so, but because he freely conceives it, wants it, and loves it.” (Mikhail Bakunin)
And “Doing good to others is not a duty. It is a joy, for it increases your own health and happiness.” Zoroaster
9. Goodness is for giving; it is forgiving. “Yes, that is what good is: to forgive evil. There is no other good.” (Antonio Porchia) And “A good man is kinder to his enemy than bad men to their friends.” (Bishop Joseph Hall)
10. Good people are good regardless of how they feel; after all, “The devil himself is good when he is pleased.” Thomas Fuller
11. Goodness improves the environment we share. “The work an unknown good man has done is like a vein of water flowing hidden underground, secretly making the ground green.” Thomas Carlyle
12. Goodness sees the good in others. “Wise men appreciate all men, for they see the good in each and know how hard it is to make anything good.” Baltazar Gracian
13. Goodness promotes life. “The fundamental idea for good is thus that it consists in preserving life, favoring it, in wanting to bring it to its highest value.” Albert Schweitzer
Well, what do you think? How about becoming a candle and living up to the words of William Shakespeare, “How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Also, between two goods, let’s always choose the better good. And between two evils, let’s always choose the lesser evil. Better yet, whenever possible, between two goods, let’s choose both and between two evils, let’s choose neither.
When shall we begin our journey on the path of goodness? Marcus Aurelius has the answer, “Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.” And remember, “We can do more good by being good than in any other way.” (Rowland Hill)
MADE FOR GOODNESS: And Why This Makes All the Difference by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu
THE COMPASSIONATE INSTINCT: The Science of Human Goodness edited by Dacher Keltner, Jeremy Adam Smith, and Jason Marsh
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