I remember exactly the first time I lied to be thought virtuous. It was a school test. It had general questions. One question was this: Do you help your mother around the house regularly? I’ll ignore the assumption that only “mothers” are supposed to work around the house for now. I wrote “Yes” as the answer.
Now I did help around the house. Sometimes. When I felt like it. It wasn’t a compulsion or a duty or anything. If I was asked to do something, I did it sometimes, sometimes I refused saying I was doing important things like playing. It wasn’t a big deal. So the true answer would have been “Sometimes”. But we were asked to answer in just Yes or No.
I wrote Yes because of two reasons. One was to account for the “Sometimes”; I didn’t think it was fair to ignore all of the work that I did in the face of the times that I didn’t. The second reason brings us to today’s topic: I wanted the teacher to think that I was good.
What does being good mean exactly?
A simple definition would be to be kind, generous, helpful to the people around you. But these words themselves are pretty vague as far as their own definitions are concerned. What does being kind mean? What is the line between being generous and being taken advantage of? What constitutes help and where do we stop it?
Being selfless combines all of the above if we look at it simplistically. And selflessness?
Altruism: the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others.
To be unselfish?
A selfish person is one “lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.”
I refuse to believe that anybody is completely selfless. All of us are selfish in varying degrees. And all of us know it deep down. And it’s not such a bad thing. Why then, this need to be considered “selfless” by others?
I think I’m considerate enough towards people as a general rule. I think I help them reasonably; not doing their entire work, of course, but as much as is genuinely needed. If had to choose a path that benefits everyone, I would choose it over the one that benefits just me. I would try and avoid the path that hinders others. But if there was a choice between a path benefits somebody else but harms me in any way, I don’t think I’m selfless enough or virtuous enough to choose it. I don’t think I can let anyone matter more than me.
It sounds harsh when I say this perhaps. But I don’t think I’m wrong. There’s a difference between being good and being taken for granted. I have no qualms in doing something for another being; I can take a little bit of trouble for it. Because it makes me feel good. I have to admit that it is about me even then. It is always about me.
And yet, we have this inherent need to be considered good by others, especially when we are young and in school. Hence, I have to tell my teacher that I’m “helpful” and “obedient” in my house. I have to share that last bit of cake with my classmates even though it is my favourite and I don’t want anybody else to eat it. But I have to share because I’m good and “generous”. I have to help people with their homework because I’m a “kind” person, and it doesn’t matter that they gave some superficial excuse not to do it. Otherwise, I shall be considered “selfish”. It’s okay if I’m not actually good inside my head, with my thoughts, as long as I’m being considered good by the world.
It has become easier to think for myself first and then others as I’ve grown older. But as a society, we continue to expect people to confirm to these behaviours. Don’t get me wrong. The children have to be taught these things, even if it doesn’t come naturally to them at first. But what about teaching them about that fine line of difference? What about when they grow older? Do we still expect them to be just as “virtuous”?
All of this does not mean that one should always keep oneself above others at all times. But real kindness, generosity or helpfulness is, in fact, completely selfish.
To be selfless is completely selfish.
It is in our own selfish interest of feeling good that we help somebody. And that, right there, is goodness.
What do you consider to be good? How do you learn what is the right sort of kindness/helpfulness/generosity? Is it easy to teach children about being good rather than just being considered good?
5 thoughts on “Virtuosity and Lies: What Does It Mean To Be Good?”
This is a very thought-provoking post…I relate very much with what you wrote here, and often I have questioned how good I really am…I grew up with a mother who was all-sacrificing and my sister-in-law is that way too, and I feel they put me to shame. Using my mother as a model, I can’t help but feel selfish as a mother myself, because I want to read or be on the computer rather than be with my son all the time…but you are right about that fine line. I have a good friend who for a time was constantly asking me for favors…each week there was some crisis or emergency. I began to feel really conflicted, because I felt she was taking advantage of me and yet I felt I would be seen as the ‘bad guy’ if I didn’t drop everything to run to her aid, even if I had the time to.
Regarding teaching children to be good rather than just being considered good, I have found something very interesting when I compared my way of parenting versus my husband’s. When my son was younger and whenever he “misbehaved” publicly, my husband would use shame to correct him – e.g., “Stop, that man can see you” or “Stop, the saleslady is going to get mad.” I prefer to say, “Stop, you are making too much noise and this disturbs other people.” My husband comes from Japan where shame plays a HUGE role in guiding people’s behavior, and it is very important to do the “right” thing in society’s eyes. However, I think that using shame to discipline children simply teaches them about the importance of appearance and of not getting caught. My husband saw the logic in this so now we both try and focus on teaching empathy, how other people would feel as a result of our actions.
Anyway, sorry for the long comment!
I adore long comments! They show that my post actually made the person think, which serves the entire purpose of blogging. 🙂
Even I have observed shame playing a major role in parenting; shame and comparison actually. “See your elder brother, he doesn’t behave that way!” I think it makes things worse.
My parents tried to tell me reasons of why I should/shouldn’t do something, instead of just ordering me. “Why” was a very welcome question and I think it made a huge difference in my upbringing. And so, I think your way is definitely better!
I completely relate with what you write about your mother; my mother is pretty sacrificial too. I keep wondering if I’m not as caring towards people, or whether or not it’s in my nature to nurture. But then again, if I can’t care about myself first, then I can’t care about anybody else.
I really enjoyed this post. I think there are general things that are considered “good” like the ones you listed, and those are easier to teach. But teaching kids morals, our morals specifically can be more complicated. My thinking goes, while, yes I think I have “good” values, other peoples values are equally legitimate, so how do we teach our kids that there are many ways to be “good.” And I guess with that, I think we should instill in them that what it means to be “good” is always changing, and that “good” is kind of a loaded term, being true to yourself is more important than pretending to be “good.”
We should always converse with our children, allow them to ask questions.
Well said. The confusion, I think, begins when one person’s way to be good clashes with another’s way. All of us really learn with time and situations, don’t we?
Thanks for commenting!
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