Dear Andrew W.K.,
I turned thirty not long ago and came to the realization that after living most of my life filled with bitterness and hatred, I am not a good human being. Sometimes, I imagine myself as the opposite version of who I really want to become. Wobbling through life in the most miserable way possible, I only know how to hate and how to play the victim. I don’t possess the redeeming qualities I seek in others.
Sometimes I feel like it’s too late to change. I don’t even know where to begin. What are the tips and tricks for getting my life back together and becoming a good person?
Before anyone can become a “good person,” we have to figure out what being a good person really means. And while at first it can seem easy to define this by a list of certain essential traits, it quickly becomes difficult to nail down and describe exactly what goodness is.
Is a good person someone who is selfless and puts others ahead of herself? Or is a good person someone who works to have the best life he can, regardless of the circumstances around him? Is a good person someone who has reached a type of purity and grace? Or is a good person someone who has achieved worldly success and a complex lifestyle? The more we try to pin down what being a good person consists of, the harder it gets to make sense of for our own lives.
We may choose to look at the lifestyles and accomplishments of people we admire with the hope that mirroring their specific behaviors and mindsets can secure our own “good person” status. But this often leads to greater confusion and discouraging waves of frustration as we realize that we can’t really fit ourselves into someone else’s shoes or walk down their exact path.
After wrestling with these realizations for a time, we begin to see that being a good person somehow involves being oneself. But more than that, it’s the delicate and hard-earned process of becoming oneself. This is ultimately a great deal more challenging and subtle than simply working through a checklist of predetermined steps, tips, or tricks. We must unfold our goodness from within. And each of us has a specific path that will take us through that process. That path is called “your life.”
In this way, being a good person is not a final state that one reaches, but a constant, lifelong project. In many ways, the consistent and earnest effort we make toward becoming a good person may be the closest we actually get to being a good person at all. This is a mysterious and rather paradoxical truth, so I’ll restate it again for clarity:
Working to become a good person is synonymous with being a good person.
Many people will not like this definition of goodness, as they would rather have their good-person status attained in a basic, provable step and completed as quickly as possible so they can put it behind them and get back to frivolous things. Many people would rather not have to invest their energy into ongoing labor toward their development. They want to pass a one-time test and be done with it. But that’s too easy. And when it comes to being a good person, the path may be simple, but it’s never easy. As has often been said, though it seems we are trying to reach a place or a state of importance, it’s not actually that destination that matters most, but the journey we go through on our way there. And what that journey does to us — and what we discover about who we’re meant to be while we’re on it — is where its true value lies.
So it’s never too late to reaffirm your commitment to continuing on your journey in life. You’ve already been unfolding yourself, and your pains and frustrations have all been part of this journey. You have never not been on your proper path. In many cases, our worst and lowest moments are ultimately the most motivating and inspiring in pushing us toward our unfolding goodness.
Find the courage to release yourself from your past “mistakes” and “failures” and realize that they are all part of your adventure. Each step — whether noble or flawed — has helped to bring you to where you are now, and from here on out, your life can and will improve.
It takes discipline and commitment and resilience to face yourself with honesty and humility every day, but you already began that part of the journey when you wrote in to me and started reflecting on your inner life. Always ask yourself a few questions: “Is this action I’m about to take going to contribute to goodness?” “Is this word I’m about to speak going to contribute to goodness?” “Is this thought I’m focused on going to contribute to goodness?” Follow the answers found in your heart, and let them lead you. Have faith in yourself and in your destiny. Allow it to pull you as much as you push toward it.
Realize that all along you have already been on your journey, getting your own incredible chance at being alive. It is through this very process called “living” that we each get to discover the truth about ourselves and the world around us. That’s what living is for. The only way to get anywhere is to go through it boldly and with great enthusiasm. It won’t be easy, but it will be amazing and incredible. Stay strong and keep moving forward. You already are a good person. Now let your life reveal this to you by living it and loving it with all your heart.
[Editor’s note: Every week, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 30, 2015
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