Good to Everyone

Be good.

I’m sure I was told this as a child. Isn’t every child told to be good? And what does that mean? Don’t upset Mum and Dad. Don’t hit your brother. Don’t write on the walls. Don’t play with your food. Don’t pull the dog’s ears. Don’t pick the neighbour’s flowers. Don’t knock over the plants. It means behave yourself. But for children just learning to distinguish right from wrong, kindness and cruelty, not to mention the nuances of social norms and behaviour, being good really just means not rocking the boat.

I excelled at “being good”. I grew to thrive on the praise of others be it a teacher, a parent, or a friend. Making others happy, comfortable, and safe was a great source of comfort and satisfaction to me. It made me feel good to make others feel good and it was nothing short of a kind of spiritual desiccation to see others hurt or disappointed by my actions. But life has a way of forcing us to grow by challenging our most deeply held beliefs.

At thirteen I learned I could expect others to temper their needs and it wouldn’t make me heartless. (No, eating lunch with a different crowd one day does not amount to betrayal.)

At fifteen I learned I could expect others to be responsible for their needs and it still wouldn’t make me heartless. (No, your boyfriend isn’t going to fall apart if he only gets to see you once a week. And if he is? He doesn’t need a girlfriend, he needs therapy.)

By this time, “being good” had long since shattered into a complex Venn diagram of virtues – kindness, generosity, compassion, honesty, and others.

At twenty-seven I learned that while kindness practiced with those I liked was easy, kindness practiced with those I didn’t was a sort of superpower. And, not unexpectedly, it required a kind of ferocious strength. When people got angry, I took deep breaths and spoke with kindness. When people were hurt I stepped into the fear and comforted them. When people were frustrated, I reassured them and what’s more I really believed they would find their better selves and transcend whatever was weighing them down. Kindness became a way of being, and when that happened I felt stronger and became influential at work and with friends in ways I hadn’t been before. But like I said, life has a way of forcing us to grow by challenging our most deeply held beliefs.

I found myself in an adult relationship that had much bigger stakes than my teenaged dilemmas. I was uneasy and thought the best thing to do would be to end it. But my compassion became, like all of our greatest strengths, an Achilles heel. I couldn’t bear to hurt him. I think I even considered it a personal shortcoming that I was unable to make myself want to commit to someone I admired so much. So we began to drift, and I was carried along for a long time, leaving but always returning and never really knowing why.

I believed that my failure was letting my big heart get in the way of my smart head. But I am not sure anymore that this was a fair assessment.

After spinning wheels with the relationship in either neutral or reverse I finally gave up, put it in drive, let out the clutch and surrendered to wherever my emotions were going to take me, and discovered unexpectedly that this great compassion, this “superpower” I’d cultivated, had a blind spot; and the blind spot was me.

I’d been berating myself for so long that it required a familiar kind of ferocious strength to talk to myself the way I had talked to other people – with kindness, comfort, and reassurance – and to give myself space and just listen. I learned that my heart is clearer “thinking” than my know-it-all mind gives her credit for. She has a few things to say about she wants and what she needs. Willing a conclusion left those truths unacknowledged and unresolved. Which is why, of course, she didn’t leave. She would have given up on a relationship she’d never fully showed up for.

I know it will take me a while to master this lesson. They get more and more complex every time they come along and nothing here can be wrapped up with a bow on it. I am now more circumspect in my compassion for people, maybe I’m just tired from the effort of supporting others but at my own expense. I still believe in “being good” in its many shapes and permutations. The concept is just a little bigger and richer now that it must apply to one more person. Me.

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9 thoughts on “Good to Everyone

  1. Oh darling Lemon Tart. You always were the ‘nice’ one. I never totally understood it – but I can see from this post that there was a payoff in it for you. If I am being honest, I hope we are good enough friends that I can be, I never really trusted your ‘niceness’. In my world no one could be so selfless and sincere at the same time. I guess that says more about me than you, though. But, after reading this I think that maybe I was detecting that your niceness wasn’t complex enough. It wasn’t interwoven with your own self-interest. You are the better person for giving so much energy to other people. I just wonder if kindness and compassion need a dose of selfishness to be authentic?

  2. I think it’s also important to remember being kind to ourselves first- what good can we do to others if we betray our own needs to be kind to them?
    It takes courage to be ‘selfish’, to say ‘no’ and it can actually benefit others… When you couldn’t end your relationship, you weren’t really being kind, like you said. That’s why I’m always cautious with people who are too kind, too selfless, they make me feel uncomfortable.

  3. I wonder if in some small way we can all relate to this. I was a “good girl” right through to my mid twenties; and I’ve only just realized why. I wanted desperately to be “invisible”. My parents were going through all kinds of rough stuff themselves, and I had a “highly rebellious” (relative term) older sister who was rarely home; or at least not home enough to see the torment she was putting my parents through. They needed a break… they needed at least one of their daughters to “be good”. So, out of pity or genuine care (or maybe just pure instinct?), I learned, that like any customer service person, if you’re good, no one says anything. If you’re bad, all hell breaks loose. Maybe the fear of retribution may have been the motivator for my “goodness”? Fear is a basal instinct. Maybe that’s what it comes down to.

    The other theory, more of a glass-half-full one, is that maybe “being good” meant being compassionate, loving. Actually caring about the feelings of others. And it’s an awesome skill to learn and have, if you learn it alongside knowing yourself and being kind to yourself (Cecile said it better and first). Having one without the other breeds either narcissism or self destruction. And walking that fine line requires courage, self confidence and a constant and increasing ability to learn from mistakes, all the time.

    This really makes me reflect: finding the balance between compassion and over-compromising myself is a battle I fight every day – is it only me?… Do I give my seat up on the subway even though my back has been hurting all day and I’ll have to stand for 40 mins? Do I give money to the beggar on my block even though I know it’ll just go on alcohol and drugs? Do I keep the single mom on my team at work even though she’s incompetent? Do I continue to accept and be generous towards people in my life whom I know have taken me for granted and lied to me before?

    This stuff is so easy to be trite about, but I guess what LT say is true: things get increasingly complex over time. I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  4. I think a lot of women have issues with being too nice because that’s how we were raised. It’s really hard to break that habit and just listen to how you really feel and what you really want without automatically putting someone else’e feelings first. Great post, Lemon Tart, and I loved your last paragraph especially.

  5. a brave post, and one which has had me thinking about you these last few days. I remember us being 19 standing on a bridge somewhere in Paris having a discussion about you being nice and good, and how it made you uncomfortable to bear such responsibilities, like these words would limit you, or restrict you in some way. Ages ago, with so many more miles for us to travel. I can’t help but wonder where you’ve found yourself now, and I agree with those who’ve commented before that this being good must include a good dose of kindness to oneself. With respect to myself I call it selfishness, survival, but these terms come from my own vocabulary and my own understanding of these words; you have to find the right words for you, which I think you are doing.

  6. This entire conversation has made me, I admit, a bit misty-eyed. It so exactly embodies the point of this blog — and good conversations with close friends. Each of you has said so much that resonates with me, and I won’t repeat each in turn (BeZ, you will remember from workshops that that is a quick way to annoy the entire class). But I must say that perhaps the most genuine and kind sentiment in this long string of words is the idea that we’re in the process of understanding ourselves, what we do and why, what benefits and drawbacks each of our patterns offers us. I have the habit of being perpetually impatient with myself, and this is a nice reminder to accept that I will not know all there is to know about myself and my life and what I need and want all at once. (Lord, writing it out, it’s so obvious!) So thank you, LT, for that.

  7. Very interesting post and comments. I didn’t watch that many episodes of “Friends” when it was on tv, but I do remember watching an episode where there was an argument about whether you could ever really commit a truly selfless act – or whether there was always something in it for the “do-gooder” . I don’t know if any of you watched that show, but of course slapstick antics ensued throughout the episode, and I remember thinking about it later on and siding with the argument that yes, there is always something in it for us, even when we don’t necessarily think that there is. This is the way of the world. So what IS simply cannot be wrong, it just is.

    To add to the discussion: there is something on the tip of my brain – a few neurons firing – that are saying: “isn’t it a blessing that we have led the kind of lives where we can all understand the concept of feeling bad about doing/being good?”. It’s as if there is some kind of quota, and when we have experienced our fill of good, whether it is giving or recieiving or both, there almost has to be some other kind of reaction to balance it out.

  8. I resonated with this post so much. I tend to want to be nice all the time, to everyone, and have often forgotten to include myself in that group. I’ve had to work on having boundaries, being okay with disappointing people, letting them down – I’m still working on it.

    Pavlova – me too – I think a lot of my niceness came from a turbulent home as a teenager and a desire to fly totally under the radar.

    Back to LT – I love though, that you also talk about how much strength it takes to be kind when others aren’t. It seems to me that kindness can be taken for granted in our world, and we often fail to recognize just how much strength it takes to be calm in the face of anger, to turn the other cheek. That response is by far the nobler, and more difficult one.

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