What is a Good Person?
“We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversation with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.”
— Thomas Moore
What is a good person?
I get asked this a lot these days, because my “little bet” over these last two years has now become my new startup business, with a dedicated home on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. I’m the founder of Good People Dinners, a supper club that fosters community, trust and friendship through food, drink and conversation.
So what does that mean, a good person?
In short it’s an attitude, a particular way of showing up. Every one of us can show up this way if we want to. I should step back though, because this is actually an outgrowth of a rather thorny idea, of what a person actually is, the very nature of identity.
I grew up in what my siblings and I affectionately describe as a “hippy commune,” a place called The Temple of Yoga, in Coconut Grove, Florida. As a child, I sat at the knees and sometimes napped in the laps of a variety of spiritual teachers as they first extended their flocks into the United States. So in my teens, I became deeply curious about religious and philosophical thought, not just guys like Socrates and Nietzsche, but teachers from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, but reasonably sure I didn’t want a corporate job, like many friends at Bard College, I chose graduate school. The University of Virginia was home to the former translator for the Dalai Lama, Jeffrey Hopkins, and he was nice enough to extend to me a full fellowship and living stipend to pursue a PhD in religious studies. As a secular teacher of religion, I’d need to learn the fundamentals of all the widespread faiths and walk students through both their similarities and differences. Though I did not finish my degree, much of the learning affected me deeply.
Why do I bring this all up? At the heart of Buddhist philosophy is the often glossed over concept of “no self.” In many regards, the most radical idea the Buddha put forth, even more than the 4 Noble Truths around suffering and its cessation, was this concept of no self, of every aspect of the human condition and consciousness being mutable, constantly transforming. In short, there is nothing to hold onto and in fact clinging to the idea of a permanent self and even a relative one you can describe in a lasting way is a great root of suffering.
So is this true? Are we always the same exact person? The notion of a fixed self is a very western idea. It has its roots in dozens of our most influential thinkers. A few chief ones who come to mind are Shakespeare (“this above all else, to thine own self be true…”), Descartes (“I think, therefore I am…”) and Plato, with his notion of a “platonic self.”
Evidence continues to mount that these ideas are at best flawed understandings of who and what we are. Daily life demonstrates that every one of us shows up based on cultural expectations, on the people we’re around, on the environment, on a great many changing variables. The “immutable quintessence” at the heart of any one of us cannot be found, no matter how focused our investigation. In fact, the idea of a fixed person vanishes under scrutiny. We will raise or lower our voice, choose very different topics of conversation, grow aggressive or soften and be gentle, dress differently, think differently, adopt or shed accents and so much more. And I think this chameleon nature is completely implicit to being human; it does not connote a lack of integrity. Children come to it naturally and mimicry and adaptation help them to learn. Of course every person has their propensities and engrained habits, but that’s different; those are patterns fixed on repeat, not the same. It’s attachment to a rigid and fixed sense of self that so often hurts us. That said, as we strive for an evolving set of values, such values can offer us a north star for governing our behavior; to my mind, this is integrity. Shakespeare was wrong. There is no self to be true to.
One of the wisest people I’ve ever known, who happens to be one of the wealthiest I’ve ever met, once taught me a powerful lesson. When I asked him what the #1 mistake he saw was for his peers in business, without hesitation, he replied that they “always show up exactly the same, regardless of context.”
So when we began our supper club, having learned so much about the importance of clear intentions, I was certain I wanted these dinners to be about being vulnerable, sharing genuine opinions, shedding our hard-driving agendas (if we could) and focusing on what was most meaningful in our lives.
Quite simply, applying this understanding of “no-self” to the creation of a social club meant communicating clear expectations to anyone considering a meal with us. Then they’d know how we were asking them to arrive. Everyone who buys a seat knows what they’re signing up for, and if we’re successful, what they signed up for is what they get, a promise to meet good people, laugh, eat and have real conversations. We try to move beyond small talk and generic networking.
Who are good people? They are our best selves, any one of us, when we rise above tribalism, open our hearts, listen, learn and explore what is for each of us most meaningful.