Yes, It’s Hard to Be a Good Person
But not impossible. Start by keeping your trash off the road.
My neighbor tells me he’s already called the police, on my behalf. He looks like my uncle, the kinda guy who still says stuff like, “That’s mighty white of you.” And we excuse him, because he’s old.
What prompts my neighbor to dial the cops, but also continue watching my building until I come out? A homeless guy sitting on the steps, eating a biscuit with a little cup of gravy.
He probably bought it from one of the fast food chains nearby, and came here to eat in peace, because the managers of fast food joints don’t like people who look homeless sitting at their tables. But you see, people still prefer to sit down when they’re eating. So here he is, the one place where he thought nobody would bother him.
I’m pretty sure this is how empathy works, and even a psychopath like me can figure it out. You just imagine what you’d do in someone else’s circumstances. With practice it’s actually really, really easy.
Empathizing isn’t the real problem. Acting on it is, though. For a lot of us, that’s the hard part.
So all this guy on my front steps wants is to eat his biscuit. And all I want is to climb into my car and drive to work. The homeless guy has no intentions of stopping me. I am of zero interest to him.
We even nod at each other.
Then my neighbor pops his head out and tells me not to worry. He’s called the police. Everything’s going to be okay.
Two patrol cars roll up before I even understand what’s happening. Okay, now I’m starting to get a little worried.
The officers barely acknowledge me. They go straight for the guy with the biscuit. Still, I try to speak. “Hey, like, he’s fine. I live here. He’s okay.” My voice comes out weak and pathetic, mousy. This isn’t my teaching voice. The one with authority. It’s the just-got-pulled-over-and-don’t-know-why voice. Timid. Downright subservient.
They wear sunglasses. Which makes it even harder to talk for some reason. Those big aviator-style lenses just scream authority. Maybe that’s why Instagirls love them so much now.
One more effort. I try to raise my voice. “Nobody who lives here called the police … I think he’s just here to eat a biscuit.”
The officers start to frown. One of them literally shoos me away as they approach the guy.
A good person might insist with these officers. A better version of myself might pull out her phone and record what happens. Instead, I just crawl into my car and drive away — assuming the best. Tell myself the officers are just going to move him along.
As far as I want to believe, that’s what happens. They just ask him to leave, and he does. He doesn’t want trouble.
So I feel like a coward. And I realize just how hard it is to be a good person these days. A good person has to take up the slack for others, including neighbors who call the police just because they can.
A woman walks up to me in a strange city. I’ve come here for a conference, but she lives just a few blocks from my hotel. She needs twenty bucks to buy baby formula. Can I help her?
I’m out of cash, but she’s crying. So we find an ATM.
Some of my friends tell me I was scammed. But how do they know? There’s a fifty percent change she was telling the truth. The way I see the world, that means there was a fifty percent chance of letting a baby go hungry. Part of empathy means you accept the so-called risk of someone conning you out of twenty dollars. It’s a small cost.
There’s being a good person, and there’s being a decent person. Being a decent person isn’t that hard. It takes five minutes out of your day. And what kind of middle class white girl doesn’t have twenty bucks — even if it’s courtesy of a student loan?
Some people don’t even have the privilege of debt. Nobody will lend them money to pay back later.
At least, not without a staggering interest rate. Some predator will always be willing to loan a single mom a few hundred bucks, as long as it guarantees she’ll have to take out another loan next month.
Sometimes it’s easy to be a good person. Or at least a decent one. Some of us just get really good at talking ourselves out of it. We convince ourselves that we’re not really helping that single mom by giving her twenty bucks. Or that we can’t give everyone our money, so we give it to nobody.
This is shit logic. But it sounds really good when you’re looking for an excuse to be a shit person.
Philosophers have danced around these questions about ethics and virtue for thousands of years. I’ll give you the street version of what I know, because I’m too lazy to pull my Aristotle off the shelves.
Besides, Zat Rana has probably already written a much smarter version of what I’m about to say.
Most of us are “good people,” because our circumstances allow it. We don’t steal because we have enough money for groceries.
I’m a good parent because we can afford to rent a hospital-grade breast pump, and supplement with formula. We can afford day care, which saves our precious sanity.
Imagine all of your little advantages stripped away. Suddenly you’re working 60 hours a week for minimum wage.
How good of a person would you really be then? What would you be willing to do to provide for your family?
Even worse, what lies would you start to believe?
We subtweet corrupt politicians because our constitution lets us get away with it. We can protest climate change with clever signs as long as we get the right permit. Or as long as nobody really cares what we do.
But being a good person in bad circumstances presents more of a challenge. What if you could actually get arrested (or sued) for making fun of a politician? We might get there one day.
Another fast food bag sky dives out of the car in front of me. My spouse and I both scoff. We ask each other, “Who does that?” Apparently, a lot of people. Litter doesn’t spread itself.
You start to wonder about this guy. What he does on a daily basis. It’s easy to picture him in the other areas of his life. He’s the same guy you saw berating his 8-year-old son in public. “You seriously don’t know how a vending machine works? Jesus, son.”
He’s the guy who sits behind you in Starbucks, watching videos on his phone with the volume on max.
He’s the guy who catcalled you on your afternoon run. The one who made a vulgar gesture at you in the park. He’s the one who filled up the same park with trash that you pick up on the weekends. And he’s the reason why you don’t go out as much as you would in a different world.
We do our best to steer around life’s assholes. Tell ourselves they don’t matter. But they do. We’re constantly taking up their slack. Meanwhile, they sit back with their smug looks and talk about our bleeding hearts.
I’m starting to understand how fast food guy happens. He’s just always cutting himself a break. He’s always having a bad day.
There’s always an excuse for his behavior.
Some deity will understand and forgive all his sins, including his littering, if he just accepts that deity into his heart. Whatever that means. Perverted religion and prosperity gospel tells this guy that he can wreck this world, because another one awaits him.
All he has to do is basically…say some words at some point, before he dies. It’s just that easy. No wonder he stuffs himself with Big Macs and throws the bag out the window.
Empathy and responsibility work just like any muscle. You can stop exercising it, and you’ll get soft and complacent.
Slowly, you come to see the world as existing only for you.
I’ve felt these moments, where I’m tempted to give myself a break. A piece of paper falls out of my bag and blows along the sidewalk. I’m in a hurry. Running late somewhere. I don’t have time to chase a receipt. You know what? I do it anyway.
Yes, it’s hard to be a good person. We’re going to screw it up. You just don’t become a good person and then stay that way. It takes constant work. Some days, you’ll give into fear and selfishness. You’ll cop out. Don’t forgive yourself. But don’t wallow in shame, either. Just live with it, I guess, and try to do better next time.