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.