How Good Do We Have to Be?
Several years ago a friend of mine said to me: “I don’t believe in heaven, but if there is one, I think I’m going.” I loved how self-assured he was despite his obvious flaws, and wish I could go through life with as much confidence, not because I’m worried about an after-life, but because I want to believe that I’m doing “enough” for my fellow man (and environment) while still being able to enjoy my indulgences.
For me, I’m constantly wrestling with the question: how good do I have to be? I don’t mean “how good” of the self-help variety, a la Stuart Smalley’s daily affirmations on SNL as depicted by Al Franken. I really mean, “Okay, so how good do I have to be so that I can spend time doing things I really want to do, and do them with a clear conscience?” If this question seems rather seedy, I’ll conceded that point, but ask that you hear me out (and bear with me as I lean on religious teachings).
The very fact that I’m asking this question probably deflates some of the good I do. In Judaism, there are eight levels of charitable giving according to Maimonides, and the worst is giving grudgingly. So now, on the days when I dread going to a nearby homeless shelter because I’d rather stay at home and watch football, not only do I walk away feeling like I haven’t done enough, I feel like what I’ve done isn’t even worthy. Say it with me: oy!
Monetarily, Judaism offers straightforward guidelines, as there’s both a minimum (10 percent of one’s net income) and a maximum:
One who wishes to donate (generously) should not give more than a fifth of his income, lest he himself come to be in need of charity. (-Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 50a)
Of course, there’s really nothing easy about donating 10 percent of one’s income, so the maximum is probably irrelevant for most people, but one could just as easily apply this “upper limit” logic to volunteering and perhaps give credence to the idea that there’s a point at which someone’s done enough to help others.
Without delving into specifics, I volunteer and donate here and there, and sometimes I feel pathetically proud: “Well, wasn’t that nice of me?” It feels good to mentally check the box “volunteer one’s time” so that I can enjoy the rest of my day (week? month?) without the nagging feeling that I’m not contributing enough to the care of others. But of course, the reality is that I could always do more. Much more.
So how much is enough?
Well, if the story of the Good Samaritan from the New Testament is any indication, probably a lot more than what I’m currently doing. (I get a double dose of religion many weekends by attending synagogue on Friday and then hearing a Sunday morning sermon at the Presbyterian Church where I play piano. This allows me to feel doubly inadequate.) In this story, a lawyer asks Jesus what he needs to do to receive eternal life, and when Jesus asks the man what the law says, he answers in part, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus tells him, “You are right. Do this and you will live.” But then the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
Ah ha! Well, this gets more complicated. I suggest you read Luke 10:25-37 for the whole story, but the short answer to the question is: everyone is your neighbor!
Oh goodness. This is where the anxiety starts creeping in. In this day and age of unlimited information about every ailment and calamity facing people all around the world, one could hardly blame a well-intentioned person from becoming so overwhelmed with charitable possibilities that he’s not even able to buy a coffee or a beer without sinking into a hole of self-hatred, like Steven Spielberg’s Oscar Schindler on steroids: “This coffee! Instead of buying this coffee, I could have fed a family an entire meal! Instead of watching this baseball game, I could have volunteered at a homeless shelter!”
So how good do we have to be? Harold Kushner wrote a book with this exact question as its title, but he doesn’t really talk about what’s required of each of us when it comes to helping others. He discusses familial relationships and acceptance for one’s failings. That’s all well and good. But the reality is that as I write this blog that maybe fifty people will read, I could be delivering food or mentoring a child. I might already be doing those things, but shouldn’t I do more? If yes, how much more? Can I spend a day writing without thinking that I could have done something nobler with my time? If yes, can I spend two days? Three days? Four? Can and buy myself a $400 bass amp (as I did last week) without thinking that my money could have (should have?) gone to a nobler purpose? How about a $1000 guitar? A $2000 keyboard? I already own two keyboards, you say? So why would I need another? Wow, have you got a lot to learn about musicians.
Look, for me, these are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. I suspect I’ll never be as content as my friend who believes he’s a shoo-in for the ultimate reward, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe by questioning what I’m doing I make better choices here and there that lead to the betterment of others.
I sometimes play piano at funerals for people who – by the accounts of their loved ones – have done remarkable things: formed foundations, served on every society known to man, volunteered for every cause, and I leave these funerals feeling partly depressed and partly inspired: depressed because I haven’t done enough and inspired because I see what people are capable of.
So maybe that’s the answer. How good do we have to be? Better than we are, but less than perfect.