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On Getting Good at Being Good

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It’s really not very good. Your payday ritual of having eat-in pizza and a beer before you leave downtown after work suddenly feels like it’s no longer worth the nineteen dollars, or even the indigestion alone.

A loss of interest in something that used to excite you is a familiar feeling by now, but this time it’s so much worse than disappointment. You feel shame.

It occurs to you that FMSC or UNICEF could have fed a famished child for three months with that money, or maybe vaccinate someone against a horrendous disease. You don’t remember what buys what these days, but you know that instead of buying greasy food you could have spared someone suffering far greater in intensity than all the joy you’ve ever had eating pizza.

With the till receipt still in your hand, the truth of truths hits you: if you are to be a sane and good person, the well-being of others can be worth no less than yours. It’s the same thing.

Before this moment, you supposed that the population was more or less moral, other than a minority of bad people who put themselves before others. But now you see that every decision of yours has the power to create or prevent vast amounts of real suffering, and you have not been taking this responsibility seriously.

Thinking about it rationally, you can’t escape the conclusion that as long as you are regularly making decisions that do not maximize well-being for every sentient being, then you are being less than moral. Had you never realized that? It seems like you knew it but didn’t grasp its weight until now.

You think about what it would actually mean to live morally, on a practical level. You couldn’t justify any personal expense other than your most basic needs. You must cause the least harm possible, and create the most joy possible.

This would apply to your time as well as your money. Therefore, being moral necessarily takes all of your time, which is to say you must give your entire life to it.

So you do. All suffering is now your suffering, all joy is now your joy. You feel free, for the first time.

You give up ownership of all your possessions. You cannot think of anything as your exclusive property. Nothing can be yours unless it is everyone’s. 

It strikes you that even though the equality of human suffering is obvious to anybody who thinks about it — the fact that the joy and suffering of others is as real and as meaningful as one’s own — almost nobody lives as if it were true. Nearly everyone obviously cares more about themselves and a particular few people than they do everyone else. You must accept that the typical person would rather, evidently, gift himself a minor indulgence than spare a faraway person considerable, prolonged suffering.

You are committed to serving the good of all, but you do still feel personal desires, and you have to learn to keep them from driving you to self-serving behavior. You recognize the danger of temptation in all worldly comforts. You commit to seeking joy only in service to others, and never in tangible things. You can’t justify wearing anything but simple linens. You are aware of the danger presented by vanity, so you let your hair grow long and ungroomed, or perhaps you shave it off completely.

As you make these changes, you recognize that an honest attempt at living morally requires one to take on a lifestyle that is extremely different from the typical lifestyle where you live. For most people, evidently, the aversion making these changes is greater than the aversion to causing harm to others. It is in the specific moment of letting go that people falter.

You don’t look in the mirror any more, and as time goes on you often forget you have a body at all. When you do catch a glimpse of your hands or legs, they don’t seem to be any more yours than the sidewalk beneath them. Soon, nothing feels like yours, and you like that.

The ordinary world has the same appearance but gives you an altogether different experience. The streets, parks and public spaces are a paradise to you. Everything about the world is constantly changing before your eyes but you no longer feel the passage of time.

The initial anxiety you had about mistakenly doing the wrong thing is gone now — it is always obvious what you ought to do. Your thoughts are so quiet you know you can trust your intuition to guide you.

Your personal will, the will that sees a difference between your personal well-being and the well-being of the other people who walk the same streets, the will that brought you to restaurants to pay for indulgent food with the suffering of children, seems utterly secondary now, a memory of a dream about someone you know. You are the subject of a greater will. You are living in service of well-being itself, rather than the normal way of living in service of your own well being or your the well-being of your favorite people.

This in turn means that you must become a teacher of well-being to others. You must not only teach them about how to cultivate well-being in themselves, but teach them to teach others.

Desire for indulgence and special feelings remains, yet it feels distant to you now, a familiar call you know not to answer. You find yourself taking measures to maintain this distance. This makes you necessarily a teetotaller, because after a single glass of wine the higher faculties start to erode and accountibility fails. Naturally, you believe it is best if others do not drink either.

You can’t help but recognize that nearly every member of humanity is immoral in the sense that you were when you bought pizza instead of curing the sick. They do not know the reality of the harm they cause, and so they must be forgiven. You recognize that humanity is in great danger and its self-destruction is inevitable if it is not saved.

You naturally end up writing down a list of reminders of what you and your students must remember to do and remember not to do in order to preserve your commitment to morality. To teach another to live in service of the highest good is the most effective way to deliver the people of the world from suffering, and therefore teaching others is itself the highest good, and so this becomes the central aspect of the teaching.

In all students you can see the intention to be good, but the majority clearly do not understand. They follow the behavioral tenets you have outlined, but they are not guided by intuition and they do not seem to be experiencing peace. You notice that members of this majority are the ones who have the most enthusiasm about teaching others your message.

There are some people who understand though, the ones who can be held rapt by a flower, or by the notes from a busker’s guitar. They are easy to identify and they are very few.

One day, when you’re sitting in the public courtyard ringed by office buildings, you imagine that such people won’t always be so rare. It’s the beginning of lunch time, and workers stream out into the courtyard to smoke, talk on phones, and stand in line at food trucks.

These people aren’t capable of the highest good, says a distant voice in your mind.

They smoke and talk and eat their bad food and hurry back into their respective buildings. They are much closer to peace than they realize, and you feel intensely happy for them.

When the lunchtime crowd is gone, a relative quiet falls over the downtown. The sky is cloudless and cool. On the blanket in front of your crossed legs, several people have left change.


Photo by David Cain

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