On Being Good

7 Feb

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with my own goodness .

Am I good?

Am I good?

But am I good enough?

Good is a word that children hear early and often. A child probably hears the phrase “be good” – as an exhortation, a command, a plead – several times a day from several different adults. They might hear it so often that they won’t really be sure what good means except to know that they categorically aren’t.

By the time I was in kindergarten I thought that goodness existed as part of a binary, in the sense that either you were or you weren’t. It didn’t take me long to figure out what side of the equation I fell on; no matter how hard I tried to keep my thoughts to myself, to stay at my desk, to model myself after the prim little girls who sat so still and so silent at circle time, it was never enough. I could see that goodness came naturally to some people – I felt that there must be a great well of it inside them that they drew and drew on throughout the day; a source of goodness that kept their faces perpetually smooth and calm, that allowed them to wait to be called on instead of just shouting out the answer.

And me?

Well, I tried so hard to be like those other kids, but my nature always shone through sooner or later. And so it wasn’t long before I realized that inside of me I had a hot core of badness. I imagined it as kind of flaw on my very soul, which I pictured shaped like a white egg roll (mostly because soul and egg roll rhymed) with all the parts of me that would eventually go to heaven tucked inside of it. I imagined some kind of mark there that couldn’t be rubbed out. This distressed me, because I wanted desperately to be good – both for goodness’ sake and also because I saw that things were easier for the good kids. They were never chastised for speaking out of turn. They didn’t get sent to the office. Their parents never got calls from their teachers.

Every night I would wish to wake up good the next morning. Every morning I would promise myself that this would be the day that I was good. Every day my self-imposed goodness wore off an hour or so into the school day.

I never did learn to be good. All I ever learned was that the traits that made up the core of my personality – my enthusiasm, my talkativeness, my sociability – were less than desirable.

It took me a long time to realize that what’s sold to children as goodness is really more like passivity. It’s obedience. It’s silence. It’s never questioning authority. It’s learning facts by rote and then regurgitating them. It’s being easily governable. Easily controlled.

Good is the margarine of words – oily, chemical, not quite what it’s pretending to be – in the same way that nice is. It can mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean – moral and upright, or labile and pleasing. I would wager a guess that Donald Trump’s definition of a good citizen and my definition of the same are greatly different, even if we might use exactly the same words.

Writer Naomi Schulman, whose mother was born in Munich in 1934 and who grew up Nazi Germany, commented a few months ago on the word nice and how it’s being applied to Trump voters who, you know, don’t actually hate the Muslims or the gays or the women.

“Nice people made the best Nazis, wrote Schulman. “My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics’. They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”

I’ve seen a few people share these words with the commentary that we should be good instead of nice, and yet I’m not sure that good is much better. Good only means whatever passes for good by the lights of the person who said it – and so many of us disagree right now on what, exactly, good is.

So I’m giving up on being good. Instead, I’ll be a resistor. I’ll be rowdy. I’ll be loud. I’ll be passionate. I’ll be a fighter. I’ll be someone who believes in basic human rights no matter who that human loves or what they believe or where they come from. I’ll be a safe space. I’ll be an advocate. I’ll be anti-racism and anti-transphobia and anti-misogyny and anti-homophobia and anti-Islamophobia and anti-any-other-kind-of-harmful-hate. I’ll be a Nazi-puncher. I’ll be on the right side of history.

In short, I’ll be everything my grade school teachers tried to use good to quash out of me.


The author, age 4, ready to punch a Nazi and/or talk your ear off

24 Responses to “On Being Good”

  1. Wendy Green February 7, 2017 at 2:47 am #

    YES!! I love you! That is my life, too. And I STAND UP with you and RESIST!!! ❤
    p.s. I grew up to be an introvert–and that's ok, too!

  2. Dawnrigger February 7, 2017 at 2:57 am #

    “Good is the margarine of words – oily, chemical, not quite what it’s pretending to be”

    YES! This definition warms my hot little hyperactive heart. Thank you!

  3. amy ann February 7, 2017 at 3:34 am #

    Hell yeah!! Loooove this. And I love the African American cabbage patch doll you’re holding. 🙂 So progressive of you! Mine were all white. I’m not sure I even knew there was another option…

  4. rmsundstrom February 7, 2017 at 4:44 am #

    This post had me in tears for the wee girl wondering why she couldn’t be ‘good’, and full of joy knowing that wonderful energy will be standing up somewhere in our growing crowd demanding fairness and basic human rights for all.

    Thank you.



  5. J.D. Moyer February 7, 2017 at 5:32 am #

    I read your post to my eight-year-old daughter (talkative, sociable, not much respect for authority). She identified with the younger you greatly. Thanks for writing this!!

    • bellejarblog February 7, 2017 at 6:44 pm #

      Aw that’s lovely ❤ Tell her that she'll go far. I'm rooting for her!

  6. 1weaver February 7, 2017 at 5:50 am #

    : thunderous applause : 🙂

  7. zfunky February 7, 2017 at 6:07 am #

    bravo! this is brilliant and heart warming and empowering! I’m going to be bad and loud with you sister! #resist

  8. iantimothy1 February 7, 2017 at 7:53 am #

    Great post

  9. Mick Canning February 7, 2017 at 8:40 am #


  10. MarinaSofia February 7, 2017 at 10:23 am #

    Wonderful battle cry and a story that is familiar to so many of us! Sadly, I was the girl who was good, too good initially (think ‘teacher’s pet’, ‘goody two shoes’, those kind of nicknames in primary school). It was never quite enough for my parents, though. And then I went back to Romania under a Communist dictatorship and I was suddenly not ‘good’ anymore, because I asked questions, I refused to just accept the things I was told, I had alternative ways of interpreting things or doing things… For fear of what it might do to the rest of my family, I learnt to fit my square peg into the round hole by force, but it was painful and had consequences on my later life and relationships.
    Good (just like ‘nice’ or ‘rational’ or ‘sensible’) is a value judgement that often means ‘the way I define things and no other way’, you are absolutely spot on!

  11. silverapplequeen February 7, 2017 at 10:35 am #

    I’m one of 4 girls in a family of 6 kids. (a Catholic family, I might add). They cared about being both good & nice. I wanted to be ME.

  12. emma b February 7, 2017 at 11:57 am #


  13. em4mighty February 7, 2017 at 3:16 pm #

    i love this! i always wonder what it would be like to be one of those nice people i see around me. i bet it wouldn’t be as fun.

  14. vishalbheeroo February 7, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

    The virtues of what constitute good are rightfully questions and many times, it doesn’t work or is to our detriment. Be yourself. It matters the most. I enjoyed reading this super honest post.

  15. that little voice February 7, 2017 at 3:59 pm #

    right on, Sister

  16. historyoftelephony February 7, 2017 at 4:02 pm #

    Being “good” is a relative term. Being “good” in America could be not “good” in China or England. Thanks for the post!

  17. mohawkartist February 7, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

    An excellent read! because it reminded me of something as I was reading the tweets and FB remarks of hundreds and hundreds of people commenting on how Lady Gaga’s performance was thankfully ‘non political’ and ‘thankfully she left out the politics and just entertained’. Not only did I laugh out loud at the absurdity and naive nature of these remarks, I was saddened. Lady Gaga WAS very political. She sang her politicalness, her choice of songs (both borrowed and her own) and her very presence was what made it political. She just disguised it in good ‘art’.

    Thankfully, lots of people did get it. And they applauded her for it. The sad part was all those who did not. Those with enough privilege to be able to NOT be political for a few hours during a football game are the ones that sadden me. Trump’s administration has imposed such dire setbacks on everyone that it’s become not just an inconvenience, but a life and death situation for many people. To those standing idly by while their neighbours, friends, brother and sisters of the country are being impacted by bigotry, bans, misogyny, etc, I hope your enjoying your cushy life of ‘no politics’ for a few hours.

  18. thecreativeparttimer February 7, 2017 at 5:12 pm #

    Fantastic piece that really spoke to me. Right there with you, so thank you for writing so well about it. I remember a poem, by A A Milne of all people, spoken by a little girl named Jane, who is sick of being asked, no matter what she does or where she’s gone, whether she’s been a good girl. She gets fed up and rants about getting asked this after she’s been to the zoo. Why would I be bad at the zoo, she complains, then adds, “And would I be likely to say if I had?” Who knew he was an early feminist?

  19. LG10 February 7, 2017 at 6:36 pm #

    Great post; thank you!

  20. peabodyrus February 7, 2017 at 8:28 pm #

    funny, I’m decades older than you, but we sound like twins!! heh heh – thanks for breaking in a new generation of teachers after I wore mine out . . . and, yeah, we’ll keep being rowdy and certainly not good in the eyes of passivity mongers!!!!!!

  21. Angela Maree Barnett February 8, 2017 at 12:47 am #

    Viva la Resistance!

  22. MELewis June 13, 2018 at 10:15 am #

    Wow, I could have written this post. Wish I had in truth. When I was a kid the adults always tried to curtail me with the rhyme: “There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead; and when she was good, she was very very good; and when she was bad she was horrid.” Like you, it did not take me long to figure out which camp was mine. Late to the party but had to comment! 🙂


  1. According to Kristin - February 7, 2017

    […] via On Being Good — The Belle Jar […]

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