Thursday, April 3, 2014

Day 241 of 365: We're Better When We Admit We're Not

Do you think you're a good person?

I don't. Well, not about you, anyway. I don't really know you (unless you're someone I know personally, in which case, wow, what a douchebag). But I know me. And I don't think I'm a good person.

In this paragraph, part of me is tempted to list all the reasons why I'm obviously not a not-good person. Do you know why that's the case? Because part of me is a narcissist who doesn't like being told that I'm anything other than a gem of generosity and friendship and kindness.

But notice that I use the term "not-good". I know I'm playing a semantics game by using it over "bad". But there's a huge distinction between "not being a good person" and "being a bad person". I don't think I'm some raging monster who has no right to live. But I recognize that I have those traits in me; traits that could easily come out in the right (or wrong) circumstances. Traits that we all have.

I've talked ad nauseum on this blog about human behavior and why all these great traits that helped our ancestors survive are what will be our undoing eventually. I've been taking this course through Princeton about evolutionary psychology that has all but confirmed all that babble, but that's for another time. The simple fact of the matter is that humans weren't designed to be good; we were designed to survive. And in a world that is "eat or be eat/beat or be beaten", saving our own skin can be at the cost of someone else's. For our ancestors, that was literal: kill that guy or he'll kill you. Wound and drive off that guy or he'll steal your resources. For us, that could mean screwing someone over for a promotion, cutting in line, swerving in and out of traffic, or sending a text message with words we have no right saying to any person in the first place.

That self-absorbed, narcissistic side of me would love to now veer this piece as far away from talking about me as possible, resting comfortably in the abstract "all of humanity/human condition". Yes, let's talk about how every human being is this way in some form and get the onus to talk about shitty human beings off of me. And that makes perfect sense: the early homosapiens who were quick to self-flagelate and admit their flaws were probably pretty low on the social ladder, if not excommunicated from their respective tribes altogether.

But, really, let's talk about me.

Because I genuinely don't think I'm a "good person". I have a volatile and irrational temper. I'm vain as all getout: I check myself in the mirror basically every time I walk past a reflective surface. I'm impatient and easily distractible and egocentric and I can hold onto a grudge in a way that would make my Irish ancestors proud. I can find myself in conversations and immediately wonder when I can jump in with my two cents. I get frustrated and flustered and my go-to response is to shut down when I can't sort it out.

So, what, does this mean I absolutely hate myself? God, no. Like I said: part of me is a narcissist. I could be the worst human being on the planet and still hold myself in high regard. But, in all seriousness, admitting all these things -- admitting that I'm not necessarily a "good person" -- does not mean I'm throwing myself on the train tracks out of despair. It just means that I recognize that thousands of thousands of years of evolution has brought me to this particular chemical makeup, this particular set of personality traits and responses and triggers. My brain -- my emotions, my thoughts and feelings -- are set up for survival the same way my skeletal structure and internal organs are set up for survival. And survival does not really care about "good"ness.

I'm not inherently a good person; the same way everyone isn't inherently a good person. But there's the crazy part: (almost) everyone has the inherent drive to be good. We might have the capability resting dormant in us to, say, punch out an old lady for the last package of Dasani, or say something we know will make someone else cry, but we also have this relentless drive to at least try to be a good person. Granted, it's pretty easy to see from an evolutionary perspective why such a drive is useful: those who had no desire to be good were quickly branded sociopaths (or whatever term they would use back then) and casted out. And every single "good" action we do can eventually be tied back to a selfish, egocentric reason ("I do this good thing because it feels good to do it." "I don't do this bad thing because it feels bad to do it."). But the drive is still there.

I have absolutely no evidence to back this up (other than my own firsthand accounts), but I contend that something changes when we let go of this attitude that "I am a good person" and embrace the fact that it's a lot more complicated than that. I've watched people do things they shouldn't do, say things they shouldn't say, and then downright flail as they try to maintain that they are, at the heart of it all, "good people". What would happen if we just admitted that, yes, we sometimes do shitty things. We're selfish and aggressive and irrational. We'll do things we end up regretting. And why? Because we're not good people, but we have the drive to be.

There is something incredibly freeing in admitting it. I know people will disagree with my sentiment, and that's okay: it's human nature to disagree, sometimes to the point of indignation. And sometimes people are better off holding onto the concept that they're good people, regardless as to how true that statement is. And sometimes we're better people by admitting that we're not as good as we think we are.

No comments:

Post a Comment