Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Don't try to be a good person.

The other day, my mind was blown in my Clinical Psychology class. Dr. Lars Nielsen visited and gave a short lecture and a therapy demonstration. Don't try to be a good person, he said, because a "good person" doesn't exist, so you will only disappoint yourself. Instead, he said, we ought to try to do good things.

This seems like a merely semantic difference, just wordplay. However it is much more than that. If I try to be a "good person," in some sort of Platonic or ideal way, and never achieve that goal, then I will constantly be comparing myself to what I'd like to be, feeling inferior and somewhat worthless, and thinking all sorts of psychologically harmful thoughts. But if I instead simply try to do good things, I don't have to define myself by what I do.

You are not defined by what you do. You merely do what you do.

By what, then, are you defined? Perhaps you don't need a definition, but your mind might insist, so let us see... if you're religious, you can perhaps define yourself simply as a child of God. There is really no psychological reason why you need to consider yourself any more or any less than that. If you are not religious, it is equally simple: you are a fallible human being, and nothing more or less.

We needn't further categorize human beings; we needn't call people "good" or "bad;" we needn't rate ourselves or others. When we do, we risk depression or arrogance. Stop telling yourself that you are a bad person. You do bad things, but that doesn't make you a bad person. On the other hand, don't stress about becoming a good person. There is no such thing: persons are just persons.

You might want to dispute that last point. "There is certainly such a thing as a good person," you protest, "I know plenty of good people. I want to be like them!" I would submit in response that no human being is better than another. Your friends that you call "good people" may do admirable things, but as people they are not superior to you.

I know not all of my readers are Christians, but for what it's worth, the Bible backs me up on this one. Jesus said, "why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God." This statement is recorded three different times (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18). Similarly, the Book of Mormon records a sermon (see Mosiah 2-5) given by King Benjamin, in which he implicitly says, "I am no better than you." Think about that for a moment. If you're a Mormon, like many of my readers are, would you believe Thomas Monson if he said from the pulpit this October that he was not a better person than you? It would be true. But would you believe it? Or would you instead dismiss his claim and say, "no: he is only being humble. He really is superior to me as a human being." Many of us would surely react thus, but we would be wrong. Because there is none good but one, that is, God.

This means that, quite literally, there is no such thing as a good person. You will therefore always fail if you try to become one.

There is such a thing, however, as a good choice. You can certainly succeed in making those.

As we start to think this way, we will realize that we do not have to prove our worth: not to others, not to ourselves, not even to God (As C. S. Lewis once wrote, God "love[s] us not because we are lovable, but because He is love").

You might protest: "but I do have to do certain things, if I am to get to Heaven! So I have to do them!" Not so. Think about it: you don't HAVE to go to Heaven. You might WANT to, but that is entirely different.

All you MUST do is exist: you have no choice in that matter, existence is necessary. Everything else is completely up to you. Do you choose to be kind to others? Well, I think that's swell. But always remember that you don't HAVE to be kind to others. If you are doing it by choice, it is wonderful and empowering and when you fall short you will think, "I would like to be nicer next time." But if you are doing it because you feel like you MUST (to prove your worth, etc), then when you fall short you will feel worthless.

Remember: nothing you do - or fail to do - can ever make you worthless.

When you go into a test, for example, do not tell yourself that good results will prove your worth. Do not think of yourself as a worse person if you fail. However, go into the test telling yourself that you hope for good results; recognize that success will be beneficial to you. If you fail, you are still the same person who could have succeeded, and as a human being, you have the same degree of worth.

You might do rotten and terrible things. But you are not a rotten and terrible person.

Can you feel the difference?
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