Thinking out loud here…
I was talking with a friend the other day, who was telling me about someone in their life who was doing some stuff that was profoundly screwed-up. My friend said (paraphrasing here), “The interesting thing is, I know they think of themselves as a good person.” Which, of course, almost everyone does — even terrible people think they’re good people. Almost nobody thinks they’re a bad person. Almost nobody is a cartoon villain, rubbing their hands together and cackling over their beautiful wickedness like the Wicked Witch of the West.
And I said — it having occurred to me just then — that it seemed like there were two very different ways of thinking of yourself as a good person. There’s the standard way that rationalization works: you think of yourself as a good person, so when you do something bad, your brain immediately rushes in to start rationalizing and coming up with explanations, often convoluted, for why what you did was actually acceptable and even positively virtuous. It’s not even so much that you think of yourself as being good: it’s more that you start with the assumption that you’re good, and go from there. You think of being good as something you are, a solid and essential part of your nature.
And then there’s the way of thinking of yourself as a good person that involves constantly questioning and doubting. It involves the understanding that you aren’t, in fact, always good. It involves constantly asking yourself, “Am I doing the right thing here?” “Did I do the right thing back then?” “Could I have done something differently that would have been better?” It involves the understanding that being good is hard. It involves the understanding that being good sometimes involves making the least bad of multiple bad choices. It involves understanding that being good means being closer to the good end of a good-bad spectrum… and trying to shift yourself closer to that end. It involves constantly examining the question of what it means to be good: in general, and in any given situation. You think of being good, less as something you are, and more as something you do… and thus as something more fragile.
(Of course, it’s not a simple matter of “there are two kinds of people in the world, some people do one thing and some do the other.” I think most of us do both of these at least sometimes.)
I think the second way involves actually being good, while the first way mostly just involves thinking of yourself as good. But the second way does have its downsides. Self-questioning and self-doubt can easily be taken to a degree that’s paralyzing: you can get so worried about doing the right thing, it can keep you from doing anything at all. It can lead you to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And it can lead to low confidence, low self-esteem, not recognizing the degree to which you are good and have done good and continue to do good. It can lead you to obsess on all the ways you’ve been weak or lazy or selfish or simply failed. As messed-up as it is, the psychological process of rationalization is essential: we’d be paralyzed without it. (I often come back to that saying from Hillel: If I am not for myself, than who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?)
Not sure where I’m going with this. Just thinking out loud. Thoughts?