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Sunday, 9 February 2014

How To Be a Good Person

So here's something that's been bugging me for a while:

A week or two ago, I found myself reading one of those silly lists of how to be productive, the kind that seems to be floating all over the internet these days. If it's not 5 things to stop doing with your money now, it's somebody's 10 rules of being a writer or something like that.

In this case, it was James Altucher's rules on how to become a Jedi, which are floating around the internet in various forms. A lot of it makes sense, but the thing that stuck with me, and that's forcing itself out of my head on a Sunday night (the other options were: how I feel I was a screwup in my 20s; racism; or the joys of my new Playstation 3), is Altucher's third point, "practice being good".

As he writes,

"Being a good, compassionate person is not something like “having two arms” or “being able to see”. It’s a quality we develop over years and thousands of hours of practice. Most people are not good people. In business, in art, in almost every “world” I’ve been in, most people I meet are pretty gray to black. It takes practice to be the person who is a source of compassion and honesty. Supposedly it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Unfortunately, most people spend 10,000 hours trying to be a jerk to others. If all you do is put in your 10,000 with small kindnesses, then the universe will return that many times over."
I admit I got stuck on that point he makes about most people not being good people - calling most people you meet "pretty gray to black" is kinda harsh, to my mind. Maybe I'm naive, but I always figured most people were fundamentally okay - I've encountered a number of shitty people, and even been friends with some for a while, at least until I figured out they were shitty. But I actually think I'm thrust into close proximity with fewer assholes now that I'm grown up than when I was in school.

At any rate, that post got me thinking. Of course everybody thinks they're a decent human being. For some people, it's true; for others, it might not be true, but the people around them think it is.

But how do we know we're good people, if we never do anything good? I don't know if most people spend their time trying to be jerks to others - it's just that in the course of doing our own thing, we can piss other people off (just ask any of the folks driving behind me as I drove into and out of San Francisco yesterday; I'm still figuring out the city's road network).

On the other hand, how much time do people actually spend trying to do good stuff? I don't think many people make time for it, what with their jobs, their families, their significant others and catching up on all the TV that we're supposed to watch to avoid having stuff spoiled for us.

I wouldn't say this is a call to arms for religious folks. On the contrary, what comes to mind as I write this post is Tad Williams's book The Dirty Streets of Heaven, which is all about angels who act as "advocates" for human souls. When a person dies, Williams's protagonist, Bobby Dollar, has to enumerate the good things they did in life, as a balance to the list of bad things drawn up by his counterparts from Hell. About midway through the book, Bobby has to defend a frat boy who, while he was never a braying sociopath as depicted in film or TV, was certainly a shitty person. I don't believe it's a spoiler to say Bobby loses that case and the frat boy goes to Hell.

Tad Williams, as far as I've read, is an atheist (which is one of the things that made that book so fascinating for me). But he presents a reality where the balance of good to shitty things that we do really does matter, harking back to James Altucher's 10,000 hours of being a jerk. While I don't believe my giving some homeless guy a dollar and giving another driver the finger will be tallied against me when (if) I die, I do think both actions have some kind of weight in the here and now. And I think acting like an asshole creates some kind of mental fog that affects people who witness my assholish behavior.

I might be too sensitive. But having witnessed other people's shitty behavior - one or two former flatmates spring to mind - I feel justified in saying that telling yourself you're a good person isn't enough to actually be a good person. James Altucher has it right when he says you should practice it - as well as when he says to do it through 10,000 small kindnesses. It may not be enough to feed or clothe the poor, but if everybody just tried to be a little less shitty to friends, family and strangers, we all would be better off.