Today, I read a question. The question was: why be good in a godless world? It was directed by a believer to atheists and agnostics and she clearly expected there to be no possible answer.
Ah, I thought, rather delighted. At last, here is a question to which I do know the answer. I shot up my hand. Ask me, Miss, cried the girly swot voice in my head.
Miss cast her beady eye on me. She clearly thought I was up to something.
But my answer was plain and straightforward. I needed no sophistry or tricks. Why be good? Because being good is better.
It’s better for everything: family, government, society, friendship, health, mental well-being. I define being good as being kind, thoughtful, empathetic, as unselfish as you can be, not a bore or a solipsist, generous, willing, reliable, truthful, forgiving and open-minded. Hardly anyone except possibly the Dalai Lama can be these things all day and every day, but they are the gold standard. They are goods to aim for. They make people happy instead of sad, consoled instead of rattled, confident instead of shaken, reassured instead of threatened.
They cross all boundaries of upbringing, culture, ethnicity, belief. Good is good. It’s there, shining like the evening star, gloriously obvious and available to everyone. It does not rely on the thousands of religions (4,200 at the last count) or the myriad of philosophers or the ranging spectrum of instructional texts or sacred books or improving literature. Good expresses itself in wonderfully binary ways, so that it has an almost Manichean aspect. Would you rather be kind or unkind, generous or mean, violent or gentle? The choices are as gleaming as the morning sky.
And the really lovely thing about goodness is that it is like the very air. It crosses all boundaries. It does not matter whether you are a Zoroastrian or a pagan, a Presbyterian or a Sikh, a Buddhist or a follower of Shinto, you can choose goodness. The most atheist and the most devout can be good. A child can be good and an ancient can be good.
A lot of goodness is instinctive. I think most people know at once when they are not being good, not because they read about goodness in a book or even because their parents told them about the difference between good and bad, but because a little tuning fork inside sounds a dud note. (This is, I think, why people who are behaving badly get so cross and defensive.)
I was not good today. I was sharp and a little impatient with someone. This happens when I am over-tired, or not dealing with something that needs to be dealt with, or generally stretched too tight. Even as I was not being good, I felt the Bad Behaviour klaxon go off in my head. Move quietly to the exits, said the klaxon; vacate the building at once.
Did I know that I was failing in goodness because my mother taught me to think of the feelings of others, or because I once read about Kant’s categorical imperative, or because I fell in love with Anne Elliot, easily the nicest character in literature, when I was eighteen? Perhaps it was a mixture of all three, but it felt deeper than that, almost visceral. I think that most humans are mostly good most of the time and perhaps that is my own act of faith. I do believe in the human heart. There is an awful lot of badness in the world, but I retain my trust in the good. The bad always gets the headlines, but the small, unsung, constant goods are everywhere, if you look out for them.
Good is better. It just is. It is light instead of darkness, hope instead of despair, laughter instead of tears.
I was not very good today, but tomorrow I shall damn well make up for it. This is not some pious act of virtue, but quite a selfish desire. I don’t like beating myself up with a big stick. It makes my head hurt. Goodness is easier, because the stick can stay in its cupboard, I don’t have to race around making pathetic excuses for myself, and I can send angst back to the border because its passport was not stamped. Goodness has an enchanting double effect: it can bring a smile to the face of another human, and at the very same time make your own dear, goofy self feel sane and soothed and generally all right.
Just as love is love, so good is good.