Being Good in 2021

What is your reaction when someone tells you to “be good”? If you are like me, you sort of recoil a little bit and have a visceral negative response. Often, an external exhortation to goodness comes across as a demand for obedience, or adherence to someone else’s standards of morality, or a veiled accusation that one isn’t “good enough” as one is. I think to many of us, the phrase, “be good,” often comes across as patronizing, demeaning, or threatening.

So, when I first saw this article in The New York Times, which actually was published way back in February (but I missed it then), “How to be Good” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/smarter-living/how-to-be-good.html?referringSource=articleShare], I was vaguely suspicious. Who thinks they can tell me how to be good?

But then I read the article, and I actually found it really encouraging and even inspiring; and for that reason, I thought it was a great piece to reflect on as we eagerly look forward to 2021, which I think all of us are counting on to be “good” in all sorts of ways, and much better than 2020.

So, first, I just like this definition of goodness: “Goodness is an act of being and doing, requiring that we not only engage but reflect on the intentions behind our actions.” It’s open-ended, which I like, but it also emphasizes that goodness is a self-reflective disposition, not just an action [or series of actions]–it’s a way of being in the world, not something we turn on and off depending on the situation.

Then, here are the various aspects or components of goodness offered by a handful of individuals from different walks of life. I found myself agreeing with all of these, and I thought that each one offered food for thought. They are: Be Kind; Pay Attention; Ask Hard Questions; Put Challenges in Perspective; Hold Yourself Accountable; Buy with Intention; Invest in the Greater Good; Engage; and, No Matter What, Keep Trying.

I want to say something about the first point, and the last one.

The first point is my favorite. This is what psychologist Harriet Lerner says about kindness:

“Kindness is at the center of what it means to be good. It may require very little from us, or the opposite. It may require words and action, or restraint and silence. Everything that can be said can be said with kindness. Every tough position we have to take can be taken with kindness. No exceptions. Being a good person requires that we work toward that unrealized world where the dignity and integrity of all human beings, all life, are honored and respected.”

Who can argue with that? As we all experienced this year, a little kindness goes a long way.

Then, that last insight, “keep trying,” points to the reality that goodness is not a destination or a goal, but a process, a lifelong practice that can always be strengthened and improved–and we always have more to learn about what it means to be good in this complicated, challenging, ever-changing world.

Frankly, maybe for 2021 you have sworn off new year’s resolutions; after all, we made it through 2020–a year when “continuing to try” counted as one of our best achievements–isn’t that enough to give us a pass for 2021? I can’t argue with that, but still: author Nick Hornby suggests that “all one can ever really do is try and keep goodness close to you as an ambition — make sure that it’s one of the ways in which you think.” Just keeping goodness close–like a wise and loving friend–that in itself would be enough for 2021, I think, and a welcome, gentle invitation into a practice of goodness. May we all be bearers of more goodness to each other in the year to come, and may we all receive more goodness, too.

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