The enemy of the good

“Good is what you do, not how you are.” Or, so says the clever answer that some misguided sticklers for grammar might offer when “I’m good” is offered as a response to the question “How are you?” (Supposedly ‘well’ is the better word to use.)
While this may not be strictly accurate in the context of grammar, I think that it is accurate in the context of morality in general. This occurred to me today as I was watching this TED talk from Jay Smooth which focuses on the way people talk about race.

He points out that people see racism as something that you are, rather than something that you do. This means that pointing out any instance of racist behavior (even comparatively mild or unintentional things) is taken as a full blown accusation of racism. We see racism as a binary, on-off sort of thing. This means we are unwilling to admit to small imperfections in order to maintain our belief that we are basically good people, as good people cannot be racist.
He says

“When you believe that you must be perfect in order to be good it makes you averse to recognizing your own inevitable imperfections, and that lets them stagnate and grow. … So the belief that you must be perfect to be good is an obstacle to being as good as you can be. … We are not good despite our imperfections. It is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allow us to be good.”

In other words what makes us “good” people is, at least in part, our awareness of our failings, and our efforts to overcome them. I think this is incredibly valuable for talking about race, but this behavior vs state-of-being approach has a much broader application as well.

Consider the following:
I am honest.
I am chaste.
I am modest.
I am generous.

I think it is interesting to think of how those ‘am’ statements would or could translate into behavior based statements. For example, would it be “I say honest things.” or “I do honest things.” Or is “I avoid dishonesty” more accurate? Is there a difference? If so, what is it?

How many of us like to think of ourselves as good people, and are perhaps unwilling to to entertain the notion that we may fall short in many critical areas? And when we do see an imperfection we’re filled with shame and frustration? Just recently a shortcoming of mine was brought to my attention and my first response was to feel awful and say to myself “Wow I’m a jerk.” Instead of “Oh, I’ve hurt this person’s feelings, now I know to watch out for that.” It seems obvious which of those two responses is more effective in creating a better person. It will ultimately be my familiarity with my shortcomings that will allow me to keep them in check. The effort (or lack of effort) that I put into maintaining that familiarity is what makes me a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person.

I think that I, at least, could stand to gain quite a bit from remembering that “good is what I do, not what I am.”

Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.


  1. Brilliant! I like this because it adds a sense of responsibility; when we do good, it is an action– we are active and ressponsible– infinate, if you will. If we are good, it seems more finite- like there needs be a death or an ending in order to be bad, or great or even just better than good. It is much more empowering to be doing something, rather than just being something. Thanks for the empowerment.

  2. The sense of being good an bad as an aspect of character is often instilled in children from a young age. For instance, when a person says “my baby is a good baby” it indicates that the baby doesn’t cry or sleeps through the night (which brings the question, so if a baby cries or doesn’t sleep through the night they are bad?). When a child is called bad, it generally refers to them engaging in behaviors (like hitting) that aren’t great. However, should we really label children as bad for a single incident?

    What I like about your idea is that the sum of our actions help us indicate where we are on the good, bad scale (if such a thing exists). It also lets us clearly evaluate where we can do better. Your example is perfect; rather than feeling overwhelmed by our faults, learning from these experiences will help us be better in the long run.

  3. This is great! You’ve cleared up something I’ve been pondering for quite a while. This might explain why people react so strongly to having sexist, racist, homophobic actions pointed out. They believe they aren’t sexist, racist, homophobic and quite possibly they aren’t. They just don’t realize that an action comes across that way. But if they believe that in order to act sexist you must be sexist, they feel attacked. But if we can separate our actions from who we are, we can change our actions without feeling like “bad” people.

    I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about the way some male leaders in the church treat women in a sexist way. He flipped out and said I was calling President Monson a chauvinist. That wasn’t what I was saying. I was saying that while male leaders try to treat women well, sometimes they don’t know how and end up being sexist, generally without meaning to. But he couldn’t distinguish between a few actions and the essence of a person, and neither could I, so I couldn’t make myself understood.

    But if we can see that an occasional bad action does not make us bad people, that it simply means we’re human and made a mistake, that is much less threatening. It’s easier to think about, apologize for, and change an action rather then our whole being. Thanks for this! Such a great insight!

  4. This is brilliant, Starfoxy. The defensiveness is always hard for me when I hear feedback (whether the feedback is overly critical or not, unfortunately).

    I think it feels less hard if someone were to say to me, “Oh, this thing you did hurt me because . It felt racially motivated” instead of them saying, “You’re a racist. Look at what you just did.”

  5. This is so true. And I’m finding the defensiveness so prevalent in LDS church members right now as the LDS church is put in the spotlight. I see social media posts all over the place where people clear up “misconceptions” about the church. What I’m seeing though is that a lot of members don’t even realize why those misconceptions exist in the first place. Anyone who relates a negative experience or points out a harmful policy is pretty much labeled as anti-mormon.

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