Do you think you’re a good person?
Well, not about you, anyway. I don’t really know you (unless you’re someone I know personally, in which case — wow, what a douchebag).
But I know me. And I don’t think I’m a good person.
In this paragraph, part of me is tempted to list all the reasons why I’m obviously not a not-good person. And do you know why that’s the case? Because part of me is a narcissist who doesn’t like being told that I’m anything other than a gem of generosity and friendship and kindness – even if I’m the one saying it.
But notice that I use the term “not-good”. I know I’m playing a semantics game by using it over “bad”, but there’s a huge distinction between “not being a good person” and “being a bad person”. I don’t think I’m some raging monster who has no right to live. But I do recognize that I have those traits in me; traits that could easily come out in the right (or wrong) circumstances. Traits that we all have.
Natural selection favors animals that can adapt to their environment. The simple fact of the matter is we weren’t designed to be good; we were designed to survive. And maybe that can involve showing kindness when kindness is beneficial, but in a world where the mantra is “eat or be eaten/beat or be beaten”, kindness for the sake of kindness, mercy for the sake of mercy, gets weeded out real fast. Those who were wired to survive at all costs got to pass their genes on; those who weren’t didn’t.
Our natural inclination is to save our own skin, and saving our own skin can come at the cost of someone else’s. For our ancestors, that was literal: kill that guy or he’ll kill you. Wound that guy or he’ll steal your resources. For us, that can mean screwing someone over for a promotion, cutting in line, swerving in and out of traffic, or sending a text message with words that we have no right saying to any person.
That self-absorbed, narcissistic side of me loves that this piece is now veering far away from me as a person, resting comfortably in the abstract “all of humanity/the human condition”. Yes, let’s talk about how every human being is this way in some form; get the onus to talk about shitty human beings off of me and my experiences. Which makes perfect sense: the early homo sapiens who were quick to self-flagellate and publicly admit their flaws were probably pretty low on the social ladder, if not excommunicated from their respective tribes altogether.
But, really: let’s talk about me.
I have an irrational temper. I’m impatient and easily distractible and egocentric. And I’m vain as all get-out: I check myself in the mirror basically every time I walk past a reflective surface. I can hold onto a grudge in a way that would make my Irish heritage proud. I find myself in conversations, not listening so much as figuring out when I can jump in with my two cents. I get frustrated and flustered and my go-to response is to shut down when I can’t sort it out.
So, what — does this mean I absolutely hate myself? God, no. Like I said: part of me is a narcissist. I could be the worst human being on the planet and still hold myself in some type of regard.
But, in all seriousness, admitting all these things — admitting that I’m not necessarily a “good person” — does not mean I’m throwing myself onto train tracks out of despair. It just means that I recognize that thousands upon thousands of years of evolution have brought me to this particular chemical makeup: this particular set of personality traits and responses and triggers. My brain — my emotions, my thoughts and feelings — are set up for survival, the same way my skeletal structure and internal organs are set up for survival. And survival is not really concerned about “good”ness.
I am not inherently a good person; the same way everyone isn’t inherently a good person. But here’s the crazy part: (almost) everyone has the inherent drive to be good.
We might have the capability resting dormant in us to punch out an old lady for the last package of bottled water or say something we know will make someone else cry, but we also have this relentless drive to at least try to be a good person.
Granted, it’s pretty easy to see from an evolutionary perspective why such a drive is useful: those who had no desire to be good were quickly branded sociopaths (or whatever term they would use back then) and casted out. And every single “good” action we do can eventually be tied back to a selfish, egocentric reason (“I do this good thing because it feels good to do it.” “I don’t do this bad thing because it feels bad to do it.”). But the drive is still there. We still are desperate to do good this world, whatever what “good” might mean to us.
I have absolutely no evidence to back this up (other than my own firsthand accounts), but I contend that something changes when we let go of this attitude of, “I am obviously a good person,” and embrace the fact that it’s a lot more complicated than that. I’ve watched people do things they shouldn’t do, say things they shouldn’t say, and then downright flail as they try to maintain that they are, at the heart of it all, “good people”. What would happen if we just admitted that, yes, we sometimes do shitty things. We’re selfish and aggressive and irrational. We’ll do things we end up regretting. And why? Because we’re not good people, but we have the drive to be.
There is something incredibly freeing in admitting this. I know people will disagree with my sentiment, and that’s okay: it’s human nature to disagree, sometimes to the point of indignation. It’s human nature to assume you’re right and the other person is wrong. And sometimes people are simply better off holding onto the concept that they’re good people, regardless as to how true that statement is.
And sometimes we can actually become better people by admitting that we’re not as good as we think we are.