Today I made a remark about wanting to be a good person and the friend I was speaking to said, “What does that even mean? How do you define good?” And you know what? Not only was that a “good” question (apt, thought provoking, clarifying) but I found it surprisingly difficult to answer. I finally decided to try to identify ten virtues that I would like to characterize my life. Far deeper than the way I look, the stuff I own, or the titles I hold, who do I want to be?
You might think this would have been easy. I’m a Christian, so I should probably just start with the fruit of the Spirit, right? Or the triad of faith, hope and love? Well, yes. But I challenged myself avoid any pre-existing lists and to search deep within. Setting aside other people’s expectations (or my own, perhaps inaccurate, ideas about other people’s expectations), what do I really value?
So here’s my list. Maybe if I’d written it 10 or 20 years ago it would be different. Maybe if I rewrite it 10 years from now it will change. But this is today, and these are characteristics I want to possess. This is what it means to me right now to be a good person.
Absolute, searing honesty with myself and with God. Complete trustworthiness with other people. If I tell you something, I want you to know that it is the truth, as much as I am capable of knowing the truth. While it’s neither necessary or wise to spill your guts to everyone all the time, I also don’t want to feel that I am concealing who I really am. Remember this tag line from The X-Files – “Deceive, inveigle, obfuscate”? I never, ever want to be guilty of that.
This is connected to truthfulness, but goes beyond it. Not only do I want to engage with the world in an honest, vulnerable way, but I also want the world to engage with me. I want to hear other ideas, listen to other stories, examine other information, take the risk of having to change my mind. Repeatedly. I want my heart and mind to be constantly expanding, not contracting.
I’m stealing Frederick Buechner’s line: “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin.” Empathy is the path to developing that fatal capacity.
Life is too short to be tepid. I want to feel passion for the people I love, the gifts I enjoy (music, movies, meals, my dog, etc.), and the causes that matter to me. I want to live with commitment, enthusiasm and a willingness to get carried away from time to time.
5. Self Discipline
….without which I accomplish very little, as much of my life up to this point has demonstrated.
The world has enough snark and bile. Even when I’m in a conflict I want my conduct to be marked by gentleness and respect. I keep believing it’s possible to disagree strongly without ever being cruel: I’m a cockeyed optimist that way (see #8).
I’m not going into battle or facing persecution, but I need the courage to do and say what I believe is right even in the face of pressure and disapproval. I’ll never succeed in being truthful without courage.
Do I even need to explain this one? How would I have made it this far without hope? And how would I face whatever life (inevitably) has coming without it? In the absence of hope every other virtue will collapse in a big, steaming pile of despair and bitterness.
The right kind of laughter brings lightness and joy to life, and there is always something to laugh about. Humor allows me to take life seriously without carrying it like a heavy burden. If all other material dries up, I will still laugh at myself.
For real, Sharon, you do not know everything. Your opinion is not uniquely enlightened. You do not live on some island of perfect rationality and objectivity. You screw up all the time, and you are going to keep doing it. Admit it (#1), apologize if necessary, and move on.
That’s the list. It’s not a New Year’s resolution because, for instance, resolving to exercise humility is bound to end in either failure or ironic self-defeating triumph. Either way, the items are all too vague. There’s not much of an action plan for empathy or humor. But I do think it’s possible to examine words and actions in light of these virtues. If I insult the person who insults me, haven’t I failed to exhibit 5 and 6 (at minimum)? If I don’t speak up on behalf of the marginalized because I fear disapproval, I don’t just lack courage. I also lack empathy, truthfulness and passion – again, at minimum.
I think a few of these terms already describe me. Can I say that without a complete failure of humility? I think, for instance, that I am fairly open and I try very hard to be truthful. I also, thank God, have a sense of humor. Other qualities – most notably, self discipline – I’m still working to acquire. Also, I need much more humility sometimes. I’m a know-it-all.
What about you? What qualities do you most want to define you? If people were describing you, what kind of terms would you want them to use?