What is a good person? The question came up in book club discussing, Where the Crawdads Sing. Seated in camaraderie, 12 women were eager to begin the conversation. So eager in fact, that I turned down the volume on my hearing aids. Admiration for the main character, Kye, with her spunk and survival instincts was unanimous. An hour into the discussion, Connie asked, “Would you say Kye was a good person?” Fifteen or so seconds passed. Deborah broke the silence with, “that’s an interesting question.”
“Yes, I would say she was,” someone offered. Others nodded their head.
Playing the devil’s advocate, I said, “Even though she committed murder, she is a good person?”
“Chase raped her,” this voice was full of red-hot defensiveness suggesting that my question was preposterous. Her look said you are missing the point.
“She knew Chase was coming back and next time he would rape her,” Cathy W. straightened her posture to make herself look taller. Actually, she’s already quite tall. But I digress. “Kye would live in fear forever as long as he was around,” she finished leaning back pleased with her oration.
“It was an attempted rape,” I point out the obvious. “ Chase didn’t succeed, and it was he who was left in great pain after Kye kicked him in the groin, left him bruised and battered before she got away.” I pushed my point further. “She didn’t kill him when he attempted to rape her. No, no, no (for added drama), she plotted and schemed and never veered from her goal.” Unease set in. They didn’t like what I was saying one tiny bit.
The discussion ended without a consensus of what makes a good person. Except for Carol B., who had written her dissertation on this topic, what constitutes a “good” person, the rest of the readers remained passionate in their assertion that Kye was a good person.
Speaking to a Ted Talk audience, Dolly Chugh, psychologist and author of The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, says, “We operate from you are either a good person, or you are not a good person view. … We have this definition of good person that’s either-or. Either you have integrity, or you don’t. Either you are a racist or a sexist or a homophobe or you’re not.” In other words, our definition is narrow, near impossible to meet. We are a good person when we take a neighbor to physical therapy, but not when we say no. We are a good person when we give up our front seat on a bus for an elderly person, but not when we don’t. We are a good person when we leave a generous tip, but not when we don’t. Backward to forward, pillar to post, one moment we are, the next we aren’t.
For most of us, the need to be a good person and to be seen as a good person is deep. It’s why we donate to charities and volunteer for nonprofits. It’s why it’s hard to walk by the Salvation Army bell-ringer without depositing a dollar, or at least some change, into the red kettle. Ignore the seemingly good person ringing the bell, and for a handful of seconds, our “I am a good person” is on thin ice.
Ever notice how your pulse reacts when your good person moral identity is challenged? “How dare you question my integrity?” One morning, my first news-read was of a picture of a migrant child sprayed with tear gas. The angst on her face could melt a stone. Anger and outrage, face flushed and heart racing, I posted on Facebook: These children are barefoot. In diapers. Choking on tear gas. … At that moment, “we are a good country” was at stake. “I am a good person” and “we live in a good country,” are magnitude matters. But does our attachment to being a good person or living in a good country, America is the best country in the world, serve us well?
Dr. Chugh’s studies show that even the best-intentioned among us are still prone to race and gender bias. When we hold tight to a I’m a good person identity; we impede our potential to grow. “Either you are a good person, or you’re not. And in this either-or definition, there’s no room to grow. And by the way, this is not what we do in most parts of our lives. Life, if you needed to learn accounting, you would take an accounting class, or if you become a parent, we pick up a book, and we read about it. We talk to experts, we learn from our mistakes, we update our knowledge, we keep getting better. But when it comes to being a good person, we think it’s something we’re just supposed to know, we’re just supposed to do, without the benefit of effort or growth.”
So, why not just forget about being a good person? Accept that we are between right and wrong, good and evil. Instead, set a new and higher standard for our selves as being, what Chugh calls, a good-ish person. As a good-ish person, we can catch our mistakes and learn from them, accepting we are work in progress. This way we open up enough space to grow into a wiser, kinder, and more content person.