I love this quote.
When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion. –Abraham Lincoln
I always try to do the right thing. Ok, I’m lying. I want to think that I always try do the right thing, and I want other people to think that too. I sometimes don’t even try do the right thing in a given situation; often I do. And then there are moments that just leave me with questions.
This week I am thinking about something that happened. What, is unimportant. What is driving me to write about it, other than sleeping children, is an obsession with my response–was I a good person in that moment or a bad person? If I feel bad, does it mean I was bad–or is it more complicated than that? When I feel good, does it really mean I’ve done enough?
As I do with all things monumental and profound, I turn to the Internet. While mom’s insight is good, it is limited to a phone call. And not many friends want to dissect my every motivation and action for hours. My unrestricted access to the Internet is keeping this issue alive.
I Google “how to be a good person,” then “how to be a good Jewish person”–in case there are big differences. Interestingly, there are many sites devoted to being or becoming a good person. There is even a test. (I didn’t take it; it might spoil the fun.)
I find something and keep reading, relating to each paragraph, sometimes happily and sometimes with a bit of regret. I find this section particularly wonderful, simple, confusing in light of my current confusion.
When confronted with a situation that leaves you uncertain as to whether you are taking the right action, ask yourself one question: “What is motivating me to act in this way, my yetzer tov (good inclination) or my yetzer hara (evil inclination)?” Just answering this question will usually determine the appropriate course of action. –Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (“13 Ways To Become a Good Person: Jewish pointers on living a good and ethical life,” Reform Judaism Magazine, Spring 2006)
This week I am in the grey area between feeling I am a good person, and thinking I am bad. Recent experiences have shaken my view of myself. I am not someone who does well in the grey area. I like going through my day without drama, with most things going my way. Here is a shocking fact: I like life to be easy. I am a very good person when things are easy. Most days are good enough for me. (It helps that I’ve lowered both my standards and the bar of what I call civilized behavior.) When situations fall out of my comfort zone, I get nervous.
I don’t follow a religion, yet I find many writings of religious scholars comforting. There is value to me in both the Torah and the New Testament. There seems to be a universal good we all aspire to reach; I want to know how close we have to get to that determination for the bell to ring.
Perfection is ultimately unattainable. It seems, to my disappointment, that much of life is the grey area–we do our best knowing we will fail miserably at times, be only adequate at others. I repeat: there are times I don’t even try; I do what I want and hope the universe will give me a pass.
I will force myself to end here. There are school applications to be done, dishwashers to load and wine to be opened. This quote perhaps makes clear the reason for my angst.
Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it. -David Star Jordan, The Philosophy of Despair
Sometimes I know and often I am confused about the next right thing; sometimes I just ignore that wisdom. This is probably true for others as well. I can’t be alone in wondering if I’ve followed through on all the next things on any given day. Of course, there are days I know I have not. Tonight I wonder: what is the acceptable margin of error?
(Forget what I said. This is perfect. And it makes me look like a good person.)