“Being good” is a much misunderstood thing. The question for today is whether goodness requires the acceptance of a place near the end of any line worth standing in … and perhaps too much reflexive obedience to authority.
Leaders often equate morality with rule following: accepting the limitations offered by those who “know better.” Such guidance comes couched in terms of superior external direction designed “for your own good.”
The words “for your own good” have been delivered both as loving concern and an excuse to keep powerless others, especially children, in their place. Then the recipe for “goodness” creates and reinforces insecurity, hesitation, and self-doubt. Praise is cold comfort for those broken under the weight of their obligation to comply.
The counseling profession would be much smaller but for the many survivors of parental indifference, neglect, or mistreatment. The cadre of crushed lives is on high alert for signs of disapproval. Soldiers in this “battalion of the lost” ask for little. Their hopes reside in the belief their superiors will properly weigh their talents and give them what they’ve earned. They stand at attention and wait. Perhaps some think raising a hand is unnecessary in order to achieve quietly coveted recognition. Others are afraid their uplifted arm will be deemed insubordinate.
The multitudes indeed sometimes receive the desired reward. Fairness is served. But random events can disrupt their plan, as can attention paid to the more assertive. Do the meek rely too much on Jesus’s confident assertion, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? Even though his promise was a heavenly reward, one must ask how much deference and disappointment is required in this life.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the often misunderstood 19th century German philosopher, warned that conventional morality was an inducement to timidity. He recognized it as a method of control in the hands of both church and state, a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. Nietszche believed such a morality stifled creative powers in the best of men. Instead, obedience, guilt, and servility were encouraged. Other byproducts might include loss of ambition, confidence, and pride. The “herd” humans (Nietzsche’s term) would thus hesitate to assert themselves, be vulnerable to judgement from outside and inside, and abandon their dreams and desires as too self-centered; if they even recognized they had any.
Simone de Beavoir, author of The Second Sex, put the need for self-realization this way:
Every individual concerned with justifying his existence experiences his existence as an infinite need to transcend himself. This means that in focusing on the individual’s possibilities, we will define these possibilities not in terms of happiness but in terms of freedom.
We are left to ask how much docility is necessary within a competitive society? How much vulnerability to shame is too much? How much deference to your fellow-man is required to be good? Must you routinely ask permission when no one blocks you from opportunities? Must we always give reasons for what we do? Who says the world expects them? Apology is a virtuous and necessary step toward righting wrong, but what of those occasions when no one is injured and you automatically beg forgiveness anyway?
“Wanting,” and “taking” are qualities in need of some limits, lest our lives become a free-for-all. Nietzsche would admonish you, however, not to “throw out the baby” of a fully realized life “with the bath water” of a march-step set to an alien rhythm, ignoring the drummer inside you. The human race survived because it wanted many things, including mates and the ability to defend itself. And, the philosopher would argue, to manifest a “will to power” in the most talented among us.
Thus, the question is transformed from “How much acceptance, obedience, and subordination are required?” to “What will I make of myself?”
Will you grasp the world in your hands, not hope it will come to you ready made? Therapy, within such a model, is not only injury repair, but an invitation to self-creation.
Society clearly requires rules, enforcement of the law, and punishment of those who flaunt it. How then are we to reconcile our moral and civil responsibility to “be good” with our urge to fulfill ambition and desire? Surely virtue does not demand insecurity, and a damning up of that which strains for accomplishment, recognition, and joy.
Perhaps ancient ethical guidance offers us something after all. Rabbi Hillel, the Babylonian Jewish religious leader of the pre-Christian era (a teacher who would have been admired by Jesus) is famous for two lines of thought. The first, according to Wikipedia, is authorship of The Golden Rule:
That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.
But Hillel also said something else:
If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?
No good person wants to cause suffering. Should he not be encouraged to avoid the unhappiness of a self-diminished, inauthentic life?
Can you walk the tightrope connecting Hillel’s ideas? To find yourself and reach your potential while fulfilling The Golden Rule?
To be an advocate for yourself, secure in your right to do so, and at the same honor and defend the rights of others — your responsibility to the community of man?
To avoid choosing self-martyrdom and passivity, passed over and passed by in the hurly-burly of each day?
To seek joy as a decent, responsive, concerned citizen of the world?
Life challenges us to do no less.
The Angel Emoji was created as part of the Noto Project and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Good and Evil Angels is the work of William Blake, sourced from Wikiarts.org