From the playbill: What it means to be “good people”

It is Saturday morning and I’m at the San Francisco Public Library picking up some authoritative research on what it means to be a “good person” so I can write an informed article – this article – for our production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People. Loaded with an armful of books, I walk by a man who looks at me in a too-sleazy-for-a-Saturday-morning way and makes a lewd comment about the size of my stack. (To be fair, he could have been referring to the books I was carrying, but I’m pretty sure he meant something else). That guy, I decide with a cringe, is not good people.

But then, as I’m making my way to a quiet table on the third floor to flip through said books, one slips off the stack and clatters to the floor with enough noise to cause the librarians to impulsively look up and shush me with their eyes. A man who had just gotten off the elevator hurried over to pick up the book and place it gingerly on top of the rest, since both of my hands were full. This guy, I think, is good people.

We make thousands of judgments like these every day about each other and about ourselves. Hold the door for someone, call an aging relative just to say hello, decide to adopt a child in need: good people do these things. Cut someone off on the freeway, take credit for someone else’s work, lie to your partner about why you were late – do these things automatically make you a bad person, or just a person who made a bad choice?

What does it mean to be a good person? There are plenty who claim to be experts on goodness who attempt to teach or guide or lead the rest of us (though whether they themselves always act in a befitting way is another story), but how do they know? There are some generally agreed upon criteria for being a good person: following the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have done unto you; being kind, generous, unselfish, compassionate; paying heed to sentences that begin with “thou shalt not;” avoiding anything that will lead to jail time, and so on.

Rather than large acts, it would seem that most principles of goodness revolve around small, everyday acts of kindness. William Wordsworth said, “The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” In Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare writes, “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” There are few opportunities for heroic gestures in a lifetime, but everyday decisions offer many opportunities to do the right thing, for yourself and others.

Discussions of what it means to be a good person falter because they are not only subjective, but can also be contradictory. What is right in one situation might be wrong in another. Sometimes doing something good for one person means harming another. According to Aristotle, “It is easy to perform a good action, but not easy to acquire a settled habit of performing such actions.” Acting in a moral or ethical manner requires an ongoing debate with conflicting impulses that lure one to act selfishly or unselfishly, for personal advancement or greater good.

With the exception of extreme cases like sociopaths, most people at least try to be good. The information in the stacks of books I read through all impress upon the reader that trying to be a good person is really the best we can do. Very few people can claim perfection, but making the effort to choose to be kind and make a positive difference in the lives of people around you means almost as much. What it means to be a good person may be the awareness of the opportunities we all have every single day to make the choice to try to be a good person. And that might be enough.