Our greatness lies in our power of creation. At one moment there is nothing. Then — puff! — a new work of art! Perhaps a new song, poem, story, painting, musical composition, or piece of sculpture. Or perhaps a good deed. It may come in the form of an approving look, a gentle kiss, a warm touch, a radiant smile, a burst of laughter, or an encouraging word.
Goodness and beauty are similar. They both nurture us. Beauty delights the senses and goodness nourishes the soul. Performing good deeds is like planting flowers in the souls of others. Acts of goodness are beautiful acts and those who do them are beautiful people. What is goodness? It is whatever lightens the burdens we carry during our life journey. It is not only the acts we do, but also the people we are.
It’s astonishing that most of us are good when it is so easy to be cruel. And don’t misjudge those few who seem to be taking a reprieve from kindness. For as an unknown author wrote: “There is so much good in the worst of us, / And so much bad in the best of us, / That it hardly becomes any of us / To talk about the rest of us.” Although the majority of us are perfectly good people, we are not perfectly good. After all, we’re not perfect. So, it’s not surprising the Chinese say, “There are only two perfectly good people. One is dead, and the other unborn.”
There are degrees of goodness. In its lowest form, we are passively good. That is, rather than doing good, we merely avoid doing evil. For example, a parent may decide to stop criticizing their children. Although this isn’t the highest form of goodness, it is important in the eyes of the children. For their anxiety, anguish, and stress will be relieved when the brutal criticism ends. However, it would be even better, or a higher form of goodness, if the parent were to praise, encourage, and inspire them, instead of merely ending the criticism. Parents who stop criticizing, merely stop starving their children and now offer them bread and water. But those who actively offer praise and encouragement feed their children nutritious and delicious meals.
The highest form of good is when we do it expecting nothing in return. It is like being the sun, picking no favorites, and offering our warmth to all. Most of us probably believe we fall in this group. We are kind and generous people, aren’t we? But if that were the case, why is it that after being betrayed we say, “How could they do that to me? After all I’ve done for them!” Doesn’t that type of thinking suggest we were keeping score and expecting something in return for our goodness?
Why bother being good? Did you say, “Why bother?” Phillips Brooks (1835 ~ 1893) can tell you why, “No man or woman can be strong, gentle, pure, and good, without the world being better for it and without someone being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.” Isn’t that good enough reason?
Another reason is we are one family. I’m not talking about a grand, moral concept, but about simple common-sense and science. You see, if we merely go back fifty generations, the family trees of every human on earth merge into a common tree (according to geneticists J.B.S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and others). To grasp the weight of this statement, pretend you’re sitting in a subway in Toronto. As you look at the passengers around you, you see Pakistanis, Somalis, Vietnamese, Russians, Greeks, Chinese, or any number of other nationalities. Now, no matter whom you see, no matter how different they may appear, everyone in the subway is at least a fiftieth cousin of yours! Some are closer. But we’re all cousins. The separation we see is imaginary. We’re all one family. That’s good enough reason to be good to everyone.
Another reason to be good is it is our nature to do so. We were meant to be good. That’s why we feel good, or are happy, when we do good. Perhaps the biggest reason for doing good is people are in need. Pitying their suffering is humane, but relieving it is Godlike. Their pain is an opportunity for us to become good, for we become good by doing good. Acting with kindness is its own reward because when we nurture the souls of others, we nurture our own soul.
How shall we do good? Not in a single act, but in an endless stream. Not because others have been good to us, but because all are deserving. Not by merely during good, but by doing it in a good way. Not by choosing between good and evil, but by choosing between what we want to do and what we ought to do. Not by thinking of ourselves, but by placing ourselves in the shoes of our cousins.
There are obvious ways to do good: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned. But there are other ways of being good that may not be immediately obvious. One such way is to work on yourself. Remove prejudices and narrow-mindedness. Be humble. Pride builds walls; humility tears them down. Above all, stop being nasty and claiming you did it “for their own good.” That makes as much sense as trying to do good through evil. It’s a contradiction. You can’t do it, so don’t try. If you’re serious about doing good, you can follow the example of Ben Franklin who started each day by asking himself, “What good shall I do today?” and ended it by asking, “What good have I done today?”
What is goodness? It is love in action. It is heaven on earth. So, let’s do our share to bring it about. Let’s become a light by living up to the words of William Shakespeare (1564 ~ 1616), “How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Also, between two goods, let’s always choose the better good. And between two evils, let’s always choose the lesser evil. Better yet, whenever possible, between two goods, let’s choose both and between two evils, let’s choose neither.
Finally, let’s stop being judgmental and start being more accepting and forgiving. Look at how well Thomas Grant Springer expressed this idea in the following poem.
What makes life worth the living
Is our giving and forgiving;
Giving tiny bits of kindness
That will leave a joy behind us,
And forgiving bitter trifles
That the right word often stifles,
For the little things are bigger
Then we often stop to figure.
What makes life worth the living
Is our giving and forgiving;