When Goodness Isn’t Good Enough

An article by Doug Muder, 1993

For many years now, I have thought of myself as a collector of good people.

Whenever I have met that rare person who shines from within, who brings to the world a vision of higher values and a commitment to centering his or her life around those values, I have tried not to lose touch. By now I have quite a collection.

Some of them are people I grew up with, some I met in college, and others I have met on the job, at my church, or through friends of friends. They are all over the country, and the amount of money I end up spending each year on plane trips and phone calls is a little bit frightening. They are not saints, most likely none of them will ever win a Nobel Peace Prize, and you have probably not heard of any of them. They are just people who are trying to live their lives as well as they can.

Most of them are just about my age, a few years one side or the other of 40. (It’s not that I think our age group has any special claim on goodness, but these are the people I’m most likely to get to know.) Over the years I have watched their worldviews mature, watched their careers advance, watched them find mates, watched them raise children. But lately I’ve been watching something else, too. I’ve been watching them suffer.

It took me a while to see it. If there is one thing that my parents and teachers drummed into me, it’s that a good life is better than a bad one. Good people may not get rich or become famous or have any better luck than the rest of us, but I was taught that their lives would be satisfying in a way that is deeper than anything achievable by their richer, more popular, luckier compatriots. What you expect changes what you see, and so I saw mainly the wonderful aspects of the lives of my good people. Their misfortunes seemed like random fluctuations, things that–painful as they might be–would make no difference in the long run.

Even after I was able to admit to myself that they were suffering, it took me a long time to see the pattern in it. It looked so random. One person might have what appeared to be a career problem. For others the focus was a health problem, either their own or one in their immediate family. Others became obsessed with social, ecological, or political problems. Virtually all of them were overcommitted, overstressed, and getting too little sleep. Their significant relationships were slowly deteriorating because there seemed to be no time to maintain them. Many were building up reservoirs of bitterness, of anger, and of depression. They would bounce back and forth between being well aware of what was happening to them and trying to hide from it as best they could.

After several years of watching and listening and theorizing, I have come to some disturbing conclusions. The problem is not my bad judgment in choosing these people, and it can’t be solved by making them into better people. The problem is not that our culture or society or government is evil. The problem isn’t even that there aren’t enough good people in the world. The problem is in goodness itself. Or rather, the problem is in our vision of goodness and of the kind of good people we would like to be.

Our vision of goodness has developed from the accumulated experience and folk wisdom of many centuries. Unfortunately, almost all of those centuries differ from our own in certain key ways. Our ideas about what it means to be good are severely out of date. We may not have realized it yet, but many of our best people are suffering for it.

What is the good person like?

There is no need for me to provide a list of adjectives, because there already is one in The Boy Scout Handbook and in countless religious and philosophical publications. People have been making lists like this for thousands of years, and though we occasionally reinterpret one or two of the adjectives, the lists themselves have stayed remarkably constant.

I have no quarrel with the vast majority of the adjectives, but there are a couple I see as the source of the suffering of the people in my collection: The good person is committed and responsible. We all know what this means: The good person is not content to make an average contribution or simply do a fair share. The good person takes personal responsibility for the success or failure of every effort that he/she is involved in. The good person lights candles instead of cursing the darkness. The good person is not able to look at an injustice or an unmet need and say, “It’s someone else’s job to fix that”–unless he/she knows precisely who that “someone else” is, and has confidence that “someone else” is up to the job. Most of all, a good person cannot bear to see someone suffer when he/she might have prevented it.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Inspiring. It’s hard to read a description like that and not think, “Yes, that’s how I want to be.” The people in my collection really are that way. It’s killing them.

Why is the modern world different?

The modern world is networked and specialized. The modern organization has open-ended goals and is impersonal. What do those words mean in practice? The networking of the world means that we can be asked to care about and respond to anyone in the world who has problems. When there was a plague in Asia or a famine in Africa, my ancestors in Europe never heard about it, much less considered it to be their business. Specialization means that the number of organizations we can belong to and the number of possible roles we can play is virtually infinite. Our ancestors were a part of their families and their local churches. They were also citizens of some larger government, but this was not something that they could participate in except through taxes. Professionals might belong to guilds, but for most people the family and the church were all there was.

The organizations that our ancestors could belong to had finite goals. The purpose of the barber shop was to cut the hair of everyone in town. There was no thought of expanding into a national barber-shop franchising organization, manufacturing a line of hair-care products, and using that to springboard into a more general retailing empire. The old-time church might try to feed the hungry in its neighborhood, and maybe (if it was ambitious) support a missionary. The modern church has no limits to its possible goals–it can span the world and build hospitals, universities, television networks, and publishing empires.

This open-endedness has spread from our organizations to our personal roles. Our ancestors thought they were good parents if they kept their children fed and clothed and taught them how to stay out of trouble. Now a parent’s job is open-ended–the modern parent is supposed to provide for the total physical, psychological, and spiritual development of the child. Once it was simply a fact of life that not all children would survive to adulthood, but now it is considered irresponsible of a parent to expose a child to any level of risk, no matter how infinitesimal. Marriage was once a simple household partnership, but now a spouse is expected to minister to any number of personal, social, and psychological needs.

The size and specialization of the modern organization makes it impersonal, in the sense that the personal lives of the people who belong to it are outside the consideration of the organization. A small businessman in an old-time small town might know about the personal problems of one of his employees and tell him that since the business was doing OK right now, he could let up a little. The modern manager does not know about his employees personal lives unless they tell him, and the modern organization (since its goals are open-ended) is never doing “OK”. There is always more that the organization would like to do if it could get more effort out of its members.

To the extent that a manager ignores these considerations and attempts to limit the demands that the organization puts on its members (over and above the limitations that the members force through negotiation, refusal, or breakdown), the manager is not doing his/her job effectively, and will be punished by the organization. To the extent that the organization itself is lax in its demands, it will be punished by whatever market it operates in. If it is too lax, it will be driven to extinction by more effective organizations.

How does this affect the good person?

The modern individual belongs to many different organizations and has many different roles. Each of those organizations has open-ended goals and no awareness or interest in the limitations of the individual beyond those that the individual forces the organization to recognize. To the extent that it is effective and efficient, each of those organizations will attempt to absorb all the energy that the individual can muster. Since good people commit themselves to organizations they believe in, and identify the organization’s goals with their own, every good person finds him/herself committed to several open-ended agendas. This guarantees feelings of failure and frustration. In addition, if the good person is not able to recognize and articulate personal needs or the needs of family and friends, those needs will go unmet. In the presence of several open-ended agendas, there will never be surplus energy to meet unarticulated needs.

The good person of today lives with a constant sense of inadequacy and in the presence of many poorly-articulated and hence unmet personal needs. To the extent that the good person realizes what is going on, he/she feels trapped and helpless. He/she may project the resulting anger onto particular people (while at the same time guiltily sensing that it is not really their fault), internalize it as depression, or project it onto the culture as a whole in the form of bitterness. The good person constantly searches for practical techniques that will yield greater efficiency or for spiritual practices that will allow him/her to draw on an infinite source of energy. From time to time some new trick or insight does unlock new energy, but inevitably the good person’s unbounded commitments suck up the new energy and leave him/her no better off than before. To disconnect from the sources of the unbounded demands would mean becoming a bad person (or admitting to being a broken person), and it would be unbearable. Moreover, if this device worked it would throw the formerly good person into a grave spiritual and philosophical crisis. What kind of world do we live in if a bad person can live a more deeply satisfying life than a good person can?

There are many tricks for attempting to avoid the dissonance caused by the mismatch between our vision of goodness and the world we live in. We may put on blinders and refuse to become aware of the unmet needs in ourselves, our loved ones, and in the world as a whole. We may refuse to recognize the open-endedness of the demands we live with, and imagine that only a little more effort is needed to meet the expectations that we have allowed to be thrust upon us. We may go from one philosophical fad to the next, each time imagining that we are about to understand the key that makes sense of it all. We may choose to believe that the dissonance is due to some temporary emergency, which inevitably will be followed by some other temporary emergency. We may keep ourselves so chronically run down and sleepless that we remain incapable of seeing through these deceptions. Any of these tricks may be easier in the short term than realizing that our vision of goodness is flawed. But none of them will lead us to a satisfying life.

Adjusting to the new realities

Much of our current vision of goodness has been shaped by the sayings of Jesus, but there is one we have not paid enough attention to: “No one can serve two masters.” There is room in life for at most one open-ended commitment. We may choose to make that commitment to our spouses and children. We may choose to make it to our friends, to our careers, to our churches, to spiritual growth, or to a social or political agenda. We may commit ourselves to different things at different stages in our life. But we cannot get around the fact that a satisfying life can contain at most one such commitment at any given time.

This means that all other parts of our lives must have clearly established boundaries. This means that we must approach all the organizations in our lives (except possibly one) with the following attitude: “I am willing to give only a limited amount of my life’s energy to these goals. Anything that is still undone beyond that is someone else’s problem.” In some situations these limits will cause us to do less that a fair share or give less than an average contribution. And we must hold to our boundaries even if it becomes apparent that no one else is willing to step into the breach. In a world of unbounded needs and opportunities, many good and worthwhile things will go undone. Many people will suffer who we might have saved if only we had committed more time and energy. This will always be true, no matter how much time and energy we commit. “The poor,” Jesus said, “will always be with us.” To many people it is blasphemy to point out these facts. Yet by keeping these facts secret we condemn our best people to lives filled with suffering.

There was a time when organizational inefficiency and poor communication limited the demands that could be made on an individual. Those limits are fast vanishing, but we individuals remain limited all the same. This need not be a source of shame or guilt. But the vision of goodness that was appropriate for an earlier age will no longer do. We need to see a good person as someone who knows his/her abilities and limitations, and lives shamelessly and guiltlessly within those limitations. Each good person needs to find his/her own special passion, and make that the center of a single open-ended commitment. In all other areas, he/she needs to be able to say “This far and no farther.”

Would a world full of such people right all wrongs and achieve all worthwhile goals? No. But they would do what is humanly possible. And they might well achieve that deep sense of satisfaction that is a good person’s right.

Read more articles by Doug Muder