I've been thinking a lot lately about being good.
There's a lot of debate over what it means to do good. Is doing good creating as much happiness as possible, for as many people? Adhering to rules of ethical conduct, against lying or cheating? Embodying virtues like charity, humility, honesty, etc? Although these are interesting questions, they are not what has been occupying my thoughts. Instead, what I have been considering is the difference between being good and being nice.
We've all known nice people. They say please and thank you, ask after your well-being, are generous (when it doesn't cost them much), and engage in all of the other daily pleasantries with which we are so familiar. When you meet one of them, at a party or wherever, you say to yourself "That person seems nice", without thinking much about it, and that's not surprising, because it's easy to be nice.
Good people, on the other hand, are more elusive. They are people who may not always ask after your well-being, but when they do they actually listen to the answer, and remember it later. They may or may not be courteous, but they are considerate, and they don't ask more from you than they expect of themselves. Their generosity is not the careless flourish of the well-provided, but an act of thoughtful concern. When you encounter a good person, you remember that for a long time, because being good takes work—and the payoff, if any, often sucks.
It's easy to mistake nice for good, but, boy, are they different.
I used to think most people were good, but now I think they are merely gregarious. Humans are social beings, and it's our nature to cooperate, but cooperation can take many shapes. One of those shapes is strangers joining together to help shove a stuck car out of a snowbank; another is neighbors forming a lynch mob to murder a marginalized person for some perceived offense. Nice people push the car; good people push away the lynch mob.
These days, that distinction has become ever clearer, as I see people around me, people I might otherwise have liked, cheer the caging of children while blaming parents for the cruelty, carry guns through city streets on the pretext of defending their rights, and march to force other Americans to risk serious illness so that they themselves can enjoy a cut and color. These people are courteous, often charming, and will be the first to invite you to a barbecue, but they aren't good. They're just nice.
The more I think about it, the less concerned with being nice I become. I'll do my best to say my courtesies and chat pleasingly with people at social events, but I'm no longer feeling guilty about, say, treating Trump voters like they are terrible people, and with telling Trump voters they are terrible people. That's not very nice of me, but I have decided I am not good at being nice. I'll settle for just trying to be good.