Searching for something else in my files this morning, I came across this old note:
How do you get better?
How do you get better at being a person? Does it always just happen over time? What if you get worse? What if you work so hard every day to become somebody and in the end you become worse? No one’s ever going to tell you, and so you’ll never know, and there’s nothing worse than a terrible man who doesn’t know how terrible he’s become.
I seem to have written this seven years ago, back when I still lived in Alabama. They were very dark years, for a number of reasons. These are the years I’m writing about now, on these very last days of my sabbatical.
I’m not sure which aspect of myself I was thinking about when I wrote this, but all these years later I’m struck by how often these questions still feel valid, and the answers just as elusive.
If I could go back to April 2013 and answer him, I’d try to show my younger self the trap of believing that goodness inheres in people. Badness, too. If you believe you are at core a good person, your actions will not signify. Good-person cops kill unarmed black men (whom they see as bad persons) and their self-presumed goodness stays intact.
Infinitely more than your self-image, it’s your actions that matter. How you treat people, and how you treat yourself, stirs up the dust of progress and moves the world toward what folks might call good or bad—but also might never.
How do you do better? Does it always just happen over time? What if you do worse? What if you work so hard every day to do the right thing and in the end you do the wrong thing? No one’s ever going to tell you, and so you’ll never know.
Me I use God for guidance, and role models from books and among my friends. It decidedly doesn’t “just happen over time”—what happens over time is inertia. If I do worse, I recognize that I’ve done worse because I see the effects of what I’ve done. And then I try to do better next time, because there will always be a next time.
The thing about doing over being is that people will tell you, and so you’ll regularly know. They’ll say “Thank you” or they’ll say “Fuck you.” It’s a useful system.
But if you park just for a sec in an accessible parking spot, or let your party’s music go on past quiet hours, or forget your friend’s birthday, and some witness says, “You’re a bad person,” don’t listen to that lie. “You’ve done the wrong thing,” is the feedback you’re looking for.
(Of course, if you hear it and don’t listen, and don’t change in the future, then like magic you’ve become a bad person.)