yet another selfish act, I went to a movie last night with two friends. The Oscar contenders have yet to arrive, so we chose some feel-good holiday fare: The Blind Side, based on Michael Lewis's 2006 book of the same name. The movie itself is not great. (I haven't read the book, although Husband did and enjoyed it.) Sandra Bullock overacts throughout the film and, knowing the outcome of the story going in, I wasn't taken in by the few moments of suspense that the overly sentimental script offered. The Times reviewer A.O. Scott calls it "a live-action, reality-based version of a Disney cartoon."
Nevertheless, the story captured by the book and the movie is a remarkable one. Baltimore Ravens left tackle Michael Oher was born to a mother addicted to crack cocaine. After being taken away from his mother and shuttled among several foster homes and inadequate schools, Oher was enrolled at a private Christian school by a father figure who stepped in on his behalf. Even there, Oher remained essentially homeless, struggling emotionally and academically, until Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy took him in and eventually adopted him. Not insignificantly, Oher happened to be an impressive physical specimen, athletically gifted enough to earn the attention of Division I coaches not long after starting to play organized football
The Touheys' act - whether fueled by a selfless interest in another human being, a cynical desire to bolster the success of their alma mater's football team, or some combination of the two - transformed the life of this young man. In one of the few scenes in the movie that captures a conversation between Leigh Anne and Sean, Leigh Anne asks her husband if she is a good person. He responds that she is the best person he knows, that every action of hers is designed to help other people.
This conversation got me thinking about the idea of a good person. Such a relative term. I wonder if I am a good person - if I ever was, if I still am. No, I have never personally uplifted a homeless and wayward youth, expanding his horizons to include a college education and a multimillion dollar NFL contract. But certainly the threshold can't be that high?
By many definitions, I think I qualify. I am nice to people. I say please and thank you. I smile at strangers. I give generously to charity. I recycle. I help short people reach things on high shelves in the grocery store. I drive a compact car. I am doing my best to raise children who will value and respect others, their similarities, and their differences.
But my Ace in the Good Person Hole is pretty far in my past. After college, I taught in New York City for two years under the auspices of Teach for America. Yes, it was hard work. Yes, I gave a great deal of time, energy, and emotion to people less fortunate than I. But doing Teach for America was selfish as well. It allowed me to live in New York, where the vast majority of my friends flocked after graduation. It allowed me to pursue the career I wanted in a way that had some wicked street cred among the pompous and obnoxious folk who looked down on my choice to teach. And, of course, it made me feel good - good to be helping, yes, but also good to be able to tell others what I did when what they did didn't sound quite so selfless.
And here I am now. I live in a comfortable house in which I crank up the A/C in the summer and the heat in the winter. Despite having lived here for over two years, I have yet to engage in any community service in a town that has been hard hit by the economic recession. Controversial ethicist Peter Singer has proposed a rather exacting standard for the amount individuals in the developed world should donate to charity; I don't come close. I try to stay informed, but I rarely act on the information I learn. I spend most of my time, even when with others, swimming around in my own head. I'm generally happier when left alone.
I'm pretty convinced I'm not a bad person. But am I good - even when I could be doing more? More for individuals? More for my community? More for our country? More for our world? More for our future?
In this season of giving, I wonder what else I should be giving. Or is living a Hippocratic life (first, do no harm) enough?
What makes a good person? Do you think you qualify?