Are you a good person?
Most of us want to be seen as good people. For decades I liked to think of myself that way. However, I have recently come to the belief that it’s our attachment to being seen as good that causes much of the harm in the world.
I was raised in a small Michigan town. My family consisted of parents and two sisters: an older sister and my twin. Although born only seven minutes apart, early in our lives our mother developed a preference for me.
“You were an easier baby,” she explained, “your sister was always so demanding and impatient.” She described me, as an infant, waiting contentedly to be fed while my sister pumped her fist and squalled with impatience. She recalled that as a toddler I found great joy in sitting on things, chewing on a cloth diaper. My sister, on the other hand, was energetic, precocious, caused mischief, and had a temper. She was soon labeled as having “anger issues”; often banging her head on walls and leaving a permanent bruise on her forehead. As we grew older, I was frequently the target of her anger, which was exhibited through scratches, hits, wrecking my books, and merciless teasing.
My sister was unhappy and was often viewed as difficult. Our mother was often impatient and unsympathetic towards her, while at the same time delighting in me. She talked with me, supported me, and told me her secrets. As the years progressed our identities became more entrenched. My sister was seen as an instigator, and I was seen as good. I became very close with my mother and believed that as the “good” daughter I deserved her obvious favoritism. When my sister and I had fights, my mother always believed my version of events, causing my father to comment on occasion, “You know, Sharon’s mouth ain’t no prayer book.”
As an older child, I learned that goodness had power: I would be believed; I would be loved; and I would get more of the good things in life by retaining that identity. I also learned that I could manipulate or exaggerate the truth to get my sister in trouble. Because my sister often did harass me, I felt justified in my actions. And, while I occasionally felt sorry for my sister, I never felt compassion for her. I had no awareness or understanding that it was our unhealthy family dynamic that fueled her rage. That her anger and resentment of me came from repeated messages that she wasn’t acceptable or lovable as she was.
It took decades for me to see how our larger family system reinforced dysfunctional dynamics. It took me decades to learn how my idealized self-image was toxic to our relationship, and that I benefited tremendously from our family system. When I refused to see my sister’s pain, I was complicit. When I refused to see how I contributed to her devaluation, I was complicit. When I felt better about myself at her expense, I was complicit. And, yes, I was a child and not fully aware of what was happening. But when does our responsibility to see the whole picture begin? When we’re children? When we’re parents?
As a director of the Healing Justice Program for American Friends Service Committee in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, I was recently asked to participate in a restorative circle to help heal a community situation in a nearby suburb. It was in those circles that I had the opportunity to more consciously consider the harm that stems from our need to be “good.”
The situation involved a biracial family who had been harassed by eight white teenaged boys for a couple of years. Plastic bottles filled with urine and decorated with graphic hand-drawn pictures of racial and sexual imagery had been thrown at their home. Their house had been egged repeatedly, lawn and garbage waste had been strewn over their yards, and their outside water spigot had been turned on, flooding their yard. They were frequent recipients of “ding-dong-dash” and prank calls, someone yelling the “n” word at the family repeatedly.
The courts determined the harassment had reached felony-level proportions, and the boys would be given the opportunity to have a restorative circle in lieu of criminal charges. The hope was that the boys and their families would come to a greater understanding of the harm they’d caused, take full responsibility for their actions, and help come up with a plan to repair the harm done.
However, early on in the circles it became clear that the white parents of the teenagers were very attached to having themselves and their boys perceived as being “good boys.” They highlighted their son’s athletic and college aspirations, while minimizing their “silly, juvenile pranks.” They said the boys were following “group mind” and would never have done these things individually.
All of the parents categorically denied racism as a factor in their sons’ behaviors. “Just look at my Facebook page,” one father pleaded. “You’ll see it’s not true.”
While it’s very difficult to hear when we’ve caused harm, the white parents’ determination to position themselves as “good” resulted in a minimization of the serious harm their sons had caused. In their refusal to acknowledge race as a factor, they denied the family’s reality (which was that race was a factor in the harassment).
Their apology, then, was insubstantial. Their words lacked credibility, and the occasion for all present to have a transformative experience was lost. In talking with the family later, they reported having mixed feelings about the process and didn’t believe that many of the families were truly sorry. The opportunity for true healing to occur had been wasted.
Rachel Naomi Remen, founder of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, speaks to the possibility of transformative healing: “Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you—all of the expectations, all of the beliefs—and becoming who you are.”
What would happen if instead of chasing the mantle of “good,” we let go and embraced all of who we are? Can we be “good” and selfish, or “good” and afraid, “good” and mean, ashamed, or even racist? How would our world be transformed if we opened our eyes to the parts of ourselves that we like to keep in the shadows?
When I think about my childhood with my sister, I like to imagine a different scenario. In trying so hard to be the good one in my family, I lost my voice. I imagine letting go of that label (and the corresponding labels of “passive” and “victim”) to really engage with my sister around her anger. Maybe we could have fought more; I could have acted out more; and I could have had more of a voice and challenged my mother’s perceptions. And, at the end of the day, I could also have put my arms around my beloved sister, held her tight, and let her know how much I loved her. Love her.