I considered naming this post “How to Be a Good Person” but I don’t believe there are good people and bad people any more than there are good bats and bad bats. The only thing that separates us from other species is our extraordinary capacity for compassion and our high level of self-awareness.
If we are neither good nor bad, then how can we define ourselves? Based on my life experience, who we are consists of the choices we make. There are positive and negative choices we can make but in my opinion, no one should be summarily judged as a good or bad person based on their actions. Each of us has the power at any given moment to make a positive or negative choice.
The reality is that all of us have chosen poorly and wisely in the course of our lives. None of us is a pure sinner or a pure saint which is something we must remember when attempting to be a force for good. We can never be a pure force for good. We can only aspire to be.
So without further ado, here is my list of the most important choices you can make to be a force for good in a troubled world.
1) Respect and love yourself
People who love and respect themselves have love and respect to share with others. People who hate and disrespect themselves have only hate and disrespect to share with others.
2) Be grateful for what you have
There is no amount of money, beauty, or power you can possess that can uplift you the way that recognizing and appreciating what you have in your life can. However unfair and cruel your life may seem compared to those of others, there is always something you have that you can appreciate.
This is not some sentimental cliché nonsense I’m spouting. This has been scientifically studied and you can verify it for yourself. Every day for a month write down three good things that happened that day, no matter how small they may seem compared to the amount of bad things that happened that day. You will feel happier and it’s the kind of happiness you can generate without the need for external sources of pleasure. It’s renewable happiness.
3) Have empathy
Life is hard for everyone. No matter how easy someone’s life may seem from the outside, everyone is dealing with some kind of stress in their lives. My personal, spiritual belief is that an individual’s life is precisely as difficult as that individual can endure so it serves no purpose to compare one person’s plight to another’s.
Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant. But trying to see the world from someone else’s point of view isn’t. Not only will it help you to understand them and give them the sense that they aren’t alone in their struggle, but it will help you to understand yourself and realize you aren’t alone in yours.
4) Be kind to people
The golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you. Unless you’re a masochist, I suspect you would like people to be kind to you. So be kind to them.
5) Be honest but not to a fault
People who value honesty often have trouble finding the line between being honest and being kind. Not every truth needs to be voiced and what may be true for one person may not be true for another. My rule of thumb is there are three cases in which you should be honest:
1) When it won’t cause harm which is most of the time.
2) Tell the truth about what you are feeling, particularly in a friendship or romantic relationship. If your feelings may be interpreted as hurtful, be respectful when speaking them, don’t blame others for your feelings (YOU are responsible for your feelings), and ensure the timing is appropriate (e.g. don’t blurt out your anger over the dishes not being done when your spouse just got home from a grueling day at work).
3) When you believe speaking your truth will improve circumstances for yourself or others.
6) Be generous with your time and spirit
Charity is an important part of being a force for good. But there is more to being a charitable person than walking for cures, raising awareness, and donating money to worthy causes. I think all of that is great and important but I also think the purest form of charity is the good you do when no one is watching and expect no adulation in return.
The most important thing you can do to help others is to do what’s easy for you but hard for them. If you are able to walk without trouble and you see a person with a walker, a cane, or a wheelchair, open doors for them. If you’re good at math and your classmate is struggling, make time to help them with their homework.
There is not one person on this Earth who doesn’t do something very easily that is challenging for others (not including the comatose). So just be generous and help them.
Can you imagine how much less troubled the world would be if everyone did this?
7) Don’t expect too much from people
One of the most important realizations a person can come to in their life is that the only power they have is over the choices they make. You cannot control the choices that other people make and the more you try, the more suffering you’ll cause yourself and others.
If someone continually makes choices that lessen your self-love and self-respect, make the choice to cut them out of your life.
8) Honor your commitments and apologize when you can’t
Commitment isn’t just about fidelity in romantic relationships. When you tell your child you’re going to take them to the movies on Saturday, that is a commitment. So is keeping a doctor’s appointment or agreeing to have dinner with your friends. Do what you say you’re going to do.
There may be times when something comes up and you simply can’t honor a commitment. In such cases, apologize to all parties involved and commit to making it up to them. However, if you break your commitments too frequently, people will lose faith in your word and distance themselves from you.
9) Have a sense of humor
Don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. If an irreverent joke makes you laugh, even if it may be considered insensitive or politically incorrect, don’t feel guilty. You can’t help what makes you laugh and laughing is good for your health.
10) Fight fair
We all get angry at some point in our lives and we all feel like screaming our heads off at the sources of our anger (usually loved ones). Anger is an important and powerful emotion. It is often looked upon as negative because it disrupts social harmony for a period of time. However, when expressed appropriately, anger can lead to positive change in our lives. When expressed poorly, it can lead to the destruction of our most important relationships.
Don’t hurl insults back and forth. It accomplishes nothing. Don’t blame others for your anger. They won’t listen.
If a situation is angering you to the point that you may lash out, excuse yourself. Take some time to examine what made you angry so that you can clearly and concisely express the source of your anger to the parties involved after you’ve calmed down.
It’s important to note that while anger is an important emotion and can lead to positive change, it can also be irrational and abusive. Don’t endure abuse. Emotional abuse is as bad for your health and well-being as physical abuse is. If you think you might be a victim of abuse, you probably are. Don’t question it. Call this number: 1-800-799-SAFE
11) Be kind to animals
Animals experience pain and emotions. Don’t think for a second that because they are less intelligent, they experience less pain than we do. There is no scientific evidence to back up that claim and there is no way to determine the depth of a creature’s suffering who can’t communicate with us.
We are the only species on the planet who’s managed to escape the food chain. We no longer serve a biological purpose in the Earth’s ecosystem so I believe we should create our own. I think that purpose should be to serve as guardians of the ecosystem to ensure its health and survival.
As guardians of this world, it should be our job to do no unnecessary harm to the creatures under our protection. That doesn’t mean I think we should all be vegetarians or that animals won’t die as a result of natural processes. But most of them are still in the food chain so their lives are far more difficult than ours. Let’s not make it worse for them by being cruel.
12) Don’t look down on the downtrodden
We’ve become a society of poor-bashers, particularly in the U.S. The poor, the sick, and the disabled need more care than those who have means and are able-bodied.
Don’t turn your nose up at a homeless person. Don’t assume he or she is a lazy drunk with nothing to offer society. There is not one person, who through very unfortunate circumstances, couldn’t end up without a job or a home or people to care for them. That includes you.
Don’t pity or look away from the sick and disabled. Most of them are stronger people than most of us will ever be and to shy away from their debilitating conditions because it scares or disgusts us is to deny our own humanity and mortality and lose an opportunity to appreciate what we have. There is not one of us who couldn’t end up with a debilitating injury or illness and not one of us who isn’t going to die. Look the sick in the eye and see yourself, care for them as you would want to be cared for, and marvel at their courage.
13) Don’t judge people based on their appearance
In our modern world, we have nearly unfettered access to photographs and video of almost everyone. Visual media has become a staple of our everyday lives. People are constantly being judged on their looks, their weight, their hair, their clothing, the color of their skin, their stature, etc. rather than what they contribute to the world.
I don’t care who you are. There is no stunningly beautiful person who will not at some point in their lives be unappealing to the eye. And if you are beautiful now, it was an accident of birth, not something you accomplished or should take pride in.
Being judged on one’s looks is one of the most excruciatingly painful experiences a person can endure, particularly since in most cases, it’s not something they have the power to change. So don’t judge yourself or others based on appearance. Don’t inflict unnecessary pain because you don’t just do it to one person. You do it to all of the people in that person’s life. Knocking people down a peg causes them to lose self-love and self-respect which is the key to their ability to be a force for good. In general, judging people causes much more harm than good.
14) Don’t judge people based on their beliefs
Most of what we consider knowledge is actually belief. Some beliefs are backed by science, some beliefs are backed by religion, and other beliefs are completely unsubstantiated. Each of us is a mixed bag of rational and irrational beliefs so to judge someone as irrational because one of their beliefs differs from your own is hypocritical and insulting.
15) Don’t judge people based on their sexual orientation or identity
I know some people believe that sexuality is a choice but whether or not it’s a choice is irrelevant. If it is a choice, it’s not your choice to make or judge. It’s none of your business.
16) Don’t judge people based on their intelligence
Being kind is more important than being smart and being smart makes you superior to no one.
17) Don’t argue about politics or religion
The advent of the internet has opened up communication between people living in vastly different cultures. Ideally, this would be a good thing. But in many cases, it has become an ad hominem war between atheists and theists and progressives and conservatives. If you have ever WON such a battle by insulting people and shoving “facts” down your opponent’s throat, please, post the anecdote in the comments section below.
If you want to DISCUSS politics or religion, treat your opponent as your friend and encourage them to do the same. If they can’t, leave the conversation and find someone else who can. I think it’s important to try to understand people who disagree with you. I don’t think it’s important to persuade them to your way of thinking and you likely never will. The best you can hope for is to find common ground and mutual respect and understanding.
18) Don’t be ethnocentric
Did you know there are other countries besides America? If you live in America and you watch the news, you would think it were the only country on Earth. This is a huge problem for Americans. We are missing out on the richness of other cultures and the social and technological advancements of other nations which could enhance our lives.
This solipsism that is pervasive across the U.S. I believe is primarily due to the media being run by corporations selling us the stories we’re interested in to make a profit rather than by honest, journalistic enterprises. Here’s some real news. We’re ignorant and we don’t know it. We judge what we know of other nations by our cultural standards which are not necessarily the standards of other nations. We criticize and we scorn because we don’t understand the mindsets of other cultures and to the rest of the world, we look like fools.
I’m not suggesting that patriotism is a bad thing. But patriotism to the point of xenophobia and an unwarranted superiority complex is dangerous, especially in an increasingly globalized world.
19) Learn to speak another language
Any language. Nothing is more humbling or enlightening than knowing the struggle to understand and be understood in a language that is not your native tongue.
20) Seek justice, not revenge
In the U.S., we seek revenge over justice. Killing a person because they killed someone else is revenge. Revenge killings are barbaric and do not serve society. They only serve to give the loved ones of murder victims the temporary satisfaction of knowing the murderer got what their loved one got. The law’s purpose is to keep society safe, not satisfy the blood-lust of the wronged.
True justice would be rehabilitating a criminal through education, counseling, and community service. Once it is safe for a former criminal to reenter society, they should be released but should continue to do community service for the length of their sentence. This seems more appropriate than killing someone who could, with the proper education, work, and care, become a valuable citizen. It even seems more appropriate than simply letting a felon with a lesser charge out on parole with no more skills to make positive choices than when they went in.
Some of you may not agree with me on this point and I understand why. You see someone who committed a horrific act, they made a disastrous choice, and you think they’re “evil” or “a bad person”. But if you accept my premise that there are no good people or bad people, then what you are judging is a bad choice that someone made.
And if it was just a choice and not the person, what caused them to make such a choice you don’t think yourself capable of ever making? Maybe they weren’t taught to make good choices. Maybe they didn’t have the opportunities or care that allowed YOU to become a functioning member of society. Maybe their life circumstances forced their hand.
That’s why rehabilitation is so important but it is distinctly lacking in our criminal justice system. I think it’s wrong to throw away a human life or lock someone up and then let them go without giving them what they need to make better choices.
Agree with me or not, I think this is an important concept to embrace to be a force for good in the world.
21) Never stop learning
You may think that if you have a job, a family, health, and money, you’ve got life figured out. Or maybe you have all those things, know you have very little figured out, and work your butt off to hide that fact from your friends and acquaintances.
No one has it all figured out. That’s why education shouldn’t end with college especially since there are things to learn that can’t be taught in a classroom.
Stay curious. Explore as much of the world as you can. Learn how to do something you’ve always wanted to learn but were too busy or too scared to try. Make friends with people who are completely different from you. If you like school, take classes. Experience as much as you can while you can because your life will be over in a flash.
22) Redefine “success”
Success, in my opinion, cannot be measured in dollars, Twitter followers, or how many ships your face could launch.
If you have a roof over your head, clean water to drink, nutritious food to eat, good health, and access to medicine, take a moment to thank your lucky stars because you’re doing a lot better than most people on the planet. If you are also happy, loved, and loving, you are one of the most successful people on the planet. Congratulations.