Friday, December 4, 2009

Are You a Good Person?

In 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?


  1. Hey Kristen - At the risk of not sounding *good* myself (and horribly narcissitic), have a look at my post today on women trying to perfect themselves. My guess is that you are already *good enough*!!

    Delia LLoyd

  2. I'm always struggling with that myself; am I just doing the "bare minimum?" Could I do more? Do I have space in my life for more?

  3. Fascinating, bottomless question. One I think about a fair bit. I think there is a distinction between a good person and good acts. Patently, these things often go hand in hand. But I think you can be a good person without constantly engaging in good acts, acts of giving. At least I hope so. My question though is whether never reaching beyond the scope of one's good life to help others detracts from one's core goodness?

  4. I think you probably do more than you think. Just by asking the question alone (I believe) means you have good in your heart, and strive to be better. That goal in itself is what makes us good people. The want to be good, the desire to help others, and doing so when we can.
    Right now especially, most of our main goals are being a mother to our children. If we can do that well, it's a start. I'm not sure I've always been a good person, but more so now that I have children and try to lead by example.
    Your posts are always so insightful, I feel I can't hold a candle to them, and my responses are always rambling and might now always be on target :) Forgive me! But I do adore your posts and the thoughtfulness that comes from reading them.

  5. The first thing that caught my eye was your opening sentence, "In yet another selfish act, I went to a movie last night with two friends." I am going to disagree with you. Completely NOT selfish. We all need time to ourselves, right?

    Now for your question. I think a good person is one who stands for what is right and tries to do good in the world. Especially in their own homes.

    I would say I qualify for this honor. As do many, many people.

    As you said, good is so relative.

    Here is another question, do we attribute "good" to those who think the same way as we do? Is their a qualifier to that characteristic that only includes those who are similar (in manner, culture, etc) to us?

    Thanks for the review on the movie. I will watch knowing Sandra Bullock overacts. Most recommendations have ignored that important detail, a detail that is of great importance to me.

  6. Hi Kristen, Thanks for another thought-provoking post! First of all I am wowed by the fact that you were in Teach for America! That's incredible and remember, that leaves a big footprint.
    For me, when I think about whether my heart is good - because that's how I judge my "goodness," I assess how aware I am of the people around me - am I anticipating needs that aren't my own? How much of each day do I spend worrying about me and how much of each day to I spend thinking of others?

  7. I am really interested in the question that a few of you have raised: as Linda put it, "How much of each day do I spend worrying about me and how much of each day to I spend thinking of others?"

    I worry that, in creating a life for myself that is comfortable and happy, I spent a lot of time inside my own head. I think about others in easy ways (as in my example of helping reach something for a stranger in a store), but spend most of my time preoccupied by myself and my family's needs.

    But perhaps as Corinne suggests, just thinking about being good is a start toward more action.

  8. A thought-provoking entry. I believe we all do more good than we realize. It may be intentional or it may not be. We buoy each other up through comments on blogs. We reach out when someone needs help if we can provide that help.

    Sometimes being inside our own heads is the only way to help those who are outside that space. If we do not know ourselves, we cannot help others.

    Brava on Teach for America!

  9. Nicki - I love this line: "Sometimes being inside our own heads is the only way to help those who are outside that space. If we do not know ourselves, we cannot help others." I am going to carry that thought with me today. Thank you for sharing it.


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