After listening to a Dennis Prager podcast, I got to thinking, and I agree with him that the majority of people, if asked, would describe themselves as basically good people. None of us want to think that we are bad people. But we all know that there ARE bad people. But do they think they’re bad? I don’t think anybody out there thinks to themselves: Hmmm, I’d like to do some real evil today… But as we all know, some people do commit acts of evil, not everyone is a good person, and we all do things that are considered bad.
Even the most evil people you can think of, like Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, thought that they did what they did for a good reason. But does that matter? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Many of us have very good intentions but are unable, for whatever reason, to accomplish our lofty goals. I wish I had millions of dollars so that we could pay off our house, buy nice cars, pay off our family’s houses and provide well for our kids’ futures. I think those intentions are a reflection of my generosity, but also my desire for some selfish things as well. Nobody’s perfect and you don’t have to give away all your wordly possessions in order to qualify as a “good” person, but even the very poor often find ways to help others BECAUSE they are good people.
Intentions are good. If you don’t aim high, how will you ever succeed at anything? But that doesn’t mean that your intention is all that matters. The result of the actions is what we really care about. The Jews on the way to the Concentration camps weren’t comforted by the fact that Hitler thought ethnic cleansing was a good thing. And the people jumping from the World Trade Center to avoid being burned to death weren’t thinking, hey, it’s a part of his belief system, to each his own!
But for most people, qualifying as generally “good” is more complicated. I only halfway believe that “It’s the thought that counts.” Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. People who wish they could give to the poor, but have no money to do so are good people simply because of their good intentions. But people who would give but just haven’t gotten around to it, may be generally good people, but their excuses aren’t helping anyone. I think your goodness is based on what Prager describes as a “moral bank account.” Your good deeds should outweigh your bad deeds, both in quality and quantity.
Being “good” takes practice. It doesn’t come naturally to us. We come into this world only thinking about ourselves. We want milk, we want mommy, we want a diaper change. But as we grow, we are taught to think of others more and more. As toddlers we learn that we need to share and that hitting is not OK. As children we learn about the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And as teenagers, many of us start thinking about our influence on the world around us and on people in other parts of the world.
We all desire to be good. We all think we are justified in the acts, good or bad, that we perform. But then why aren’t we all good people? According to Prager, learning to be good is like learning to play the piano. If asked, we’d probably all say that we’d like to play the piano well. But how many of us are actually willing to go through the effort it takes to do so? Playing the piano, like goodness, takes daily practice. The more we do it, the more naturally it comes to us until we could almost do it in our sleep. When we stop doing it, the less we feel like doing it again. We get used to either playing the piano or not, and either being good or bad. We become the kind of person we work to be. It takes a lot of effort to become a concert pianist, and it takes a lot of willpower to be a good person day in and day out, no matter the cost. When we’d rather be doing something else, and instead choose to play the piano, we are becoming better at that. Just like it’s hard to be good when the price is high. It takes practice at being good to be able to resist taking the twenty someone just dropped. Especially when no one noticed and we wouldn’t get caught.
I think we can all agree that we want everyone else to be good people, so we should all practice at being good. The better we each become, the better place the world will be.