Friday, January 7, 2011

Being Good

When I was a kid, I was very "good." What I mean by that is that I was obedient, I didn't break rules, and I got good grades. I even got into the gifted program at school. My parents and teachers constantly told me how smart and how good I was, so I should've been happy, right?

I wasn't. I was miserable. I had panic attacks almost every morning and would often miss school due to anxiety-induced nausea, which just made me feel even more guilty because missing school was "bad". I once broke down in tears because I got a 100 instead of a 105 on a spelling test; another time because my conduct marker got moved from A to B for passing a note. I felt this pressure even as early as kindergarten, when I had a nightmare that I was arrested and taken to jail for not paying attention during field day.

This is the kind of behavior often associated with overbearing, achievement-driven parents, but that wasn't what was going on here. In fact, we had almost no rules at home and my parents never doled out any kind of punishment or reward for grades, other than saying they were proud when I got a good report card. But at that age I'd never gotten a *bad* report card, so it wasn't fear of having that praise removed that stressed me out. I was always naturally perfectionistic, shy, nervous, and eager to please. The plain fact was that the same personality traits that made me "good" at school also made it terrifying and unbearably stressful for me. Add to that the fact that being constantly told I was "good" and "smart" made me feel superior to the other kids, which made them find me annoying, which made me lonely, and you've got a recipe for a very unhappy kid!

It took me a lot of growing, healing, experience, and a healthy dose of rebellion to realize that this kind of "being good" isn't really much good for anyone. I wasn't doing it to make my life better or happier, or to make anyone else's life better or happier. I was only doing it to keep people from yelling at me, which is a pretty poor reason to do anything. I'd feel desperately sad if any of the youth in my life, or my future children, started making their decisions based on what would keep people from yelling at them. I don't want to see any kids having any nightmares about carrying their little Minnie Mouse lunchbox into scary grown-up jail. You can't be your authentic self when you're living with that kind of fear, and worse still, you start building your entire self-image around how "good" you are. When you're full on fake praise for stupid shit - "You colored the lion yellow! Good girl!" - you start thinking "I'm good because I color in lions like I'm supposed to." You don't learn that you are good because you give great hugs, or because you're very creative, or because you rescue bugs and put them outside instead of squishing them, or because you just exist.

And you don't learn what actually is good in life. I don't want any child of mine learning that "goodness" equates to making things the right colors. (I'm not so sure I want my children believing in right and wrong colors, for that matter. I definitely remember being firmly told in elementary school that human skin is "peach.") I don't plan to hang any sort of conditional form of "good" over their heads, but I'd much rather they concern themselves with doing good than with being good. I want them to learn that it is good to be kind to yourself, to other living beings, and to the Earth. If it doesn't benefit anybody, then what good is it?

Being good as a kid never made me feel good at all. But I feel good when I help someone find the right train on the subway, defend things I believe in, recycle, help mail newsletters to queer prisoners, interact patiently and respectfully with the kids I babysit, buy fair-trade chocolate, cheer up a friend, sing in the UU choir, and take good care of my pets. I also feel good when I'm kind to myself: when I do yoga, dance, spend time in nature, listen to soothing music, take a hot shower, eat good food, nap, give myself permission to pout and cry, dress how I want, meditate, pray, laugh, and drink herbal tea. I'm not perfect at remembering to do either of those sets of things! But those are the goals I aim for: the kind of good that feels good and actually makes the world a nicer place to be. Not just the kind that keeps you from getting yelled at.