There Is No Honest Rest: All the Things I Would Rather Be Than Good

Friday, October 31, 2014 - 5:33am
Photo by Paul McGeiver

There Is No Honest Rest: All the Things I Would Rather Be Than Good

For a long time, I aspired to be good. Not good in the girly sense, with polite smiles and swallowed anger and perfect scores. What I really wanted was to be someone who unequivocally did right by the world, someone whose energy and resources were put towards justice and equality and all the glittering buzz words of a liberal arts education or a Sunday morning at the Unitarian Universalist church.

I wanted my ethical agitation to somehow settle into the calm of a lake on a perfectly warm afternoon with no breeze. I’d done enough. I’d lived with enough intention. I could rest in my goodness.

But, if we’re really on a quest to live an awake, ethical life, there is no honest rest. What does it mean to do good? To be good?

We live in a time when there are unintended consequences for just about everything we do. You teach the man to fish, and realize that you’ve left out his wife and instructed him using a fishing line that is destructive to the coral reefs below.

Most purchases seem connected to an invisible web of labor and production that stretches across oceans and opportunity gaps. You buy local and organic only to learn that neither means quite what it suggests; people who can’t “afford” to meet the minimum requirements to be certified organic are losing their family farms.

Many a homeless advocate has told me that it’s better not to give out change willy nilly, but to support the institutions and organizations that feed, clothe, house, and heal people on the streets. And yet, when I tune into my podcast and tune out the old woman on the subway asking for help, I feel that we’re both diminished.

(Paul McGeiver / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

So what is the alternative? To throw up your hands in the face of such systemic and moral complexity and just do what’s easy in any given moment? To give up on being ethical and instead just pursue pleasure?

Of course not. The alternative is to let your actions be inspired — not by goodness but by curiosity. Be curious about where your food, your clothes, your stuff comes from. Learn more. Ask questions. Become a systems thinker — a far more edifying and interesting identity than a do-gooder. And though I may be pegged as a real nerd for saying so, there’s no small amount of pleasure in it. Start to notice patterns that make certain systems dignifying and others soul-sucking. Expect more from even the most entrenched systems. Acknowledge when people are doing a bad job; assume it’s the structures within which they work, not the quality of their soul that is leading to the failures. Quickly move on to ask, “Who is doing it better?” Celebrate and emulate.

Let your goal be to humanize as many transactions as possible, not to make perfect decisions. Whether you decide that taking Uber is the way to go (disruption! worker autonomy!) or you’d rather support yellow cabs who still have the power to unionize and value the law even when it’s inconvenient, at least have an interesting conversation with your driver while doing it. You might look back and realize you made the wrong call with your money, but you can feel righteous about how you used your presence.

Take things personally. You are not the only one that matters, but you are one of the billions who do. And that’s something.

It’s a vote. A dollar. An op-ed. A tweet. An inch in the landfill. A millimeter of clean sky. A seat on the bus. If you don’t get it right this time, try to get it right on the next go round. Don’t be overwhelmed by your power, but don’t be dismissive of it either. In the face of a range of impure choices, you can still make the least harmful one and feel some sense of pride in your thoughtfulness. You can continually expand your moral imagination, even in the face of overwhelming choice.

(Paul McGeiver / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

Goodness is so often worn like a shield of immunity (I’m not racist. I’m one of the good white people.) or a cape of specialness (I could have made a lot of money, but I decided to start my own nonprofit instead.) It’s sometimes used as an excuse for treating abstract people — the “poor, disadvantaged, vulnerable” — well, while stomping all over the people who actually know you. I’ve met too many do-gooders who are steeped in the skills of social entrepreneurship, but starve their real relationships while feeding their egos. They can fundraise millions, but don’t listen for shit.

At this point in my life, I still crave a kind of calm, a respite from my own ethical angst. But, these days I’m more interested in a calm born of gentleness, not righteousness. I want to be gentle with myself and all my hard-earned confusion. I want to be gentle with others, ever aware of the wounds they carry with them through this tough, beautiful world. We are all subjected to broken systems, but none of us are purely good or bad.

There are so many things I would rather be than good. I would rather be engaged. I would rather be humble. I would rather be genuinely provocative. I would rather be present. I would rather be interdependent. I would rather be challenged. I would rather be wise. I would rather be real. It will never be enough. It will always be worth the discomfort.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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I've felt this myself recently. I'm vegan. I worry about pesticides in the food chain. I'm concerned about labor in China. Ordering from Amazon (I'm addicted.) and what that means for independent bookstores. In the face of criticism, questions, or judgements about what I do, "Do you know how many things are made with animal products?" and the like now I say, "No. I struggle to learn every day and while I am not perfect, I try. Shouldn't that be enough for us all? If we all just tried." This is a wonderful reflection.

Your post touches on my own musings about what seems like the futility or endlessness of trying to do "the right thing." Bringing ourselves to look fully at the very real inequities and injustices in our world is nothing short of overwhelming. Yet while I agree that doing so--and that letting this difficult knowledge impact our "small" decisions--is "always worth the discomfort," I hold to the hope that honest rest can be found, at least in small, incremental pauses along the way. Thanks for a wonderful, thoughtful post.

I like what you said about power. I try to reduce, reuse, recycle, turn things off when I'm not using them... be mindful of every tiny scrap of anything I consume. I know it will not make a big difference, but it is an expression of respect to the earth, like little kisses to the sacred.

Your theme brings to mind something I've recently read from A.H.Almaas, where he describes what Jesus meant by "blessed are the poor in spirit" as a point in which we have given up all attachments to any idea of who we are or even the spirit we think we possess, and a recognition that we can't truly have anything:
The Paradox of Being Poor in Spirit
That's the paradox to which Jesus was referring. If you become poor in spirit you will be in the kingdom of heaven. If you are completely poor, you get nothing absolutely, which ontologically is the same thing as having everything. The switch point, the transition, is the sense of the existing self, the feeling that there is a me who has or who doesn't have. The transition is that sense of self goes. Before that goes, you have things or you don't have things. That central sense of self who is going to have this, who is going to be enlightened, who is going to experience God, who is going to get rich, who is going to have pleasure is what ultimately goes. Everything else will be left. God will be left, pleasure will be left, fun will be left, everything will be there without you. Then everything will be experienced purely. Pleasure will be pure pleasure because you are not there to contaminate it. As a separate self that possesses things, you are an impurity. Without that self, when there is love, there is pure love. It is not you who says, “I love you.” Sometimes when you feel love you can actually sense a little, dark, murky cloud sitting somewhere and looking at this ocean of love. When you feel, “I'm loving and I'm going to save the world,” the world needs to be saved from you. As long as there is a you that wants to save the world, the world needs to be saved from you. You are just making trouble for people by pretending to save them when in fact you are asserting your own deficiencies.

This line in your comment blew my mind: When you feel, “I'm loving and I'm going to save the world,” the world needs to be saved from you.

Yes, yes, yes ...

Barbara ~ Thank You~"True Good & Beautiful!"

Thank you for this reflection. It is an excellent description of a common contemporary experience by which we become ethically enervated. The relentless exposure to the reality of the unintended consequences of our decisions has the effect eroding the pious ground of our best intentions. The stance of humility, wisdom, and recognition of interdependence adopted has become a resting place…though not entirely satisfying.

What a good essay! I see people who shut down because they feel they can't save the world. Instead, as the author says, we all can do the small things - be humble, provocative, present, wise. Great advice!

... such an interesting few paragraphs about this very common spot along the road of all our lives in this world of dualities ... many blessings for deepening insight and for a peaceful heart to the author in this voyage of discovery ...

Hi Courtney, thanks for your reflection. I appreciate your rejection of trying to be good by the world's standards. A few questions: What is the story that grounds your new ethics? You have rejected one story (the story you grew up with), but what is your new story? What is the narrative that gives words like curious, engaged, humble, provocative, present, interdependent, et al, actual content and meaning and prevents them from becoming another "glittering buzz words of a liberal arts education"?

I see us in a transition, willy-nilly and mostly reluctantly, into a global culture where all areas of human concern -- health, economics, food, environment -- reveal their wider dimensions almost immediately. It can be intimidating, and often is. The best I can do is to understand that as a human being, I will inevitably do some good and some harm -- and try to live as kindly as I can in the time available.

Here is my brief reflection on "Good and Evil".

Thank you for a beautiful and well written essay. Food for the soul and mind. I agree with the point you make about people who can fundraise millions and yet don't listen to those who are close. But we are all the same. I often feel overwhelmed by the world's suffering in all its forms. But if my feeling self fell away, perhaps beauty would emerge.

Thank you for this. My mind is trapped in a sense of having to earn calm. That is, unless I've reached perfection in my actions I'm not allowed to feel calm and at rest.

Thank you for pointing out this is possible. No idea how to get there, but thank you.

Kevin, it finally made sense to me when I learned that it works best the other way round. When I am able to allow myself to be calm and at rest, my actions begin to grow closer to perfection. I had to learn to refocus my attention and ignore what my teacher calls my "monkey mind" (chatter chatter chatter)and see myself clearly and with acceptance. The rest follows.

I also find my self struggling with this. Thank you for the great reminder. Amazing post, as I think all could agree.

Kevin, My Quaker friend challenged me to drop my agenda and allow God. When I can let this happen I experience my most creative growth. I will never be able to earn anything. Calm, however, is the red carpet to sacred union. Calm opens to ever flawed paradise. This broken, messy world is awesome. It is all about accepting the fly in the ointment and being at peace with it. Your journey is lovely.

I got really riffed one day about trying to be perfect and this is what came out, it helped me on my journey:

Perfectionism is a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Unattainable, it's efforts await sabotage, providing steady fodder for the self hatred that accompanies failure and the convenient excuse for not stiving toward self love.
In a state of shame or failure, everything of value within us is silently repressed;
our beauty, our deep seeing, our creativity, our vision, our joy and our compassionate heart.
Our standards for the people in our life and the quality of our relationships are doomed to this cycle.
We "confess" that we are perfectionists, as if it is a character defect,
simultaneously feeling nobel and superior.
Perfection does not exist. It is also not desirable. Think of the things you love. Are they perfect?
Embrace your imperfect self, your imperfect loved ones, the imperfect earth, this imperfect life.
Trade gratitude for perfectionism.

Basically wept while reading this. Thanks much.

Be moved to action!

unfortunately, i would have to say that there are some purely bad people out there. now, how they got there and who or whom helped shape them is the question. as to all the qualities you would rather have than goodness. it just seems to me that the ones you mentioned are the tangibles that constitute goodness.

Jesus said no one is good but God, so that makes me think that only God can show me goodness. On a feeling level, I am guilty of thinking that good means do this or do that or think this way or that. However, if only God is good, then I best start looking for God. I can't be good unless I desire to connect with God who is the source al all good and goodness. It is connection with the source of all good that will make me good ( I about said gooder!) and I will only be good when I connect and reflect the goodness of God. Should others start to see the vision of goodness of God in me, then I will have entered the kingdom of heaven. It will only be by the will and the grace of God that I enter into the "rest." All is pure joy, the peace that passes all understanding. When I look to God as the source of goodness, God will respond. Scripture says "draw near to God and He will draw near to you.God" is the source of all comprehension and goodness just is. Something in me "knows" to be still and know God. Knowing God is the source of reflecting goodness. When humanity and divinity connect, then eternity reigns. The Book of Mormon has a fantastic verse that says " is the time to live eternal life"

Listen for the voice of God . Listen for the rush of the Spirit. Listen...

I picked up this scriptural quote through Joseph Campbell, from the gospel of St. James, I believe, "The kingdom of the Father is spread over the earth and men do not see it."

We are born imperfect, I do try to be kind,caring,and my long walk where I've climbed up mountains and slide down many valleys ,I've realized that if I listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit telling and guiding me through this life I might not have made soooo many bad decisions ..but some of those bad though hard to crawl out of made me learn to listen more to God and not to my own self righteous ideas. Hard learned lessons..but iam gratefull. Because thru our own , we can help others.perfection is not achieved in this life, so we travel on

Wise words Courtney. Can you say more about this line: "to live an awake, ethical life, there is no honest rest..." Perhaps I'm misunderstanding what you mean by "no honest rest", but I see rest, especially the kind that Wayne Muller talks about in his book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, as essential to living in an awake and ethical way.

To me, rest is a form of worship.

Lovely and realistic. In a similar vein, I have spoken up for curiosity over certainty:

This is wonderful. Thank you for writing and sharing.

Thanks, Courtney for this. So true. You remind me of Jane Addams, who also reached the same conclusion -- that instead of trying to be good or do good, one should cooperate with the good efforts of others, be willing to compromise to achieve something rather than nothing, never lose sight of the humanity you share with every other human being on the planet, shape your work around the goals of real people you know, rather than abstract principles,and do everything with gentleness and love. She once wrote, "We constantly think that there are circumstances in which human beings can be treated without affection, and there are no such circumstances." She, like you, knew many activists who could not listen "worth shit." I know a few myself. Thank you for this wonderful essay!

Oh how I feel this essay! Working in non-profit can lead to so much compassion fatigue that it is easy to lose track of the things we would rather be than "good." Thank you for that little bit of inspiration and reassurance that life is about radical intentionality!

Sounds to me as though the do-good phase was a necessary catalyst to the author's present state of mind. Would she have matured to these conclusions had she not first "done time" in a liberal arts, Unitarian world, where justice and equality prevailed? Probably not.

Have you spent time in my head and soul? I'm 55 and continue to wrangle with similar scenarios and simultaneously find a little peace of mind. Each day seems to present itself with new encounters that summon up my heart and criss-cross around one another. Engaged rather than good is a great place to start! Being gentle with myself and present for my patient family is becoming more important as I grow older. Peace and thanks to you for this blog!

"When people lost sight of the way to live
Came codes of love and honesty"
-Lao Tzu 17

Thank you.

For anyone to simply ask questions, become curious and make choices, it can sometimes feels like its not enough. I believe in an interconnected world, these simple tasks can make a big difference.

taoists and confucians agreed about the fundamental goodness of human nature. according to the sayings of confucius, though, he considered goody-goodies to be 'thieves of virtue.' if goodness is indeed inherent, it need not be sought, whereas aspiring to be a goody-goody should be rejected. inherent goodness and the other cultivated virtues enumerated above, therefore, need not be considered mutually exclusive. (in other words, all of the above + goodness, and maybe even a little 'honest' respite in order renew strength in order to keep cultivating those virtues!)

Thank you for your thoughtful reflections. I encourage myself and others to start each moment from a place of gratitude and compassion, and to think of the world as a place of abundance rather than scarcity. When we acknowledge even the smallest blessings in our lives, we let go of things like jealousy and longing, thereby creating positive energy and space for more blessings to arrive. We can each make a difference by sharing the blessings and abundance we've received as best we can. No single person is likely to change the world, but millions or billions of small deeds can, and do.

I almost never reread anything. But Ms.Martin's post was different. I felt compelled by the sheer audacity of "There are so many things I would rather be than good."I want to be good but feel diminished when that is all I am.
Thanks for opening up to the possibility of seeing my world in a much more interesting and fulfilling way.

Courtney, you are marvelous. Gentleness is a direction I have been pointing at for a while now. Keep reading our minds and reflecting back to us. I know there must be many, many of us who are being awakened and challenged by your published thoughts. Please continue to astonish and provoke us into more purposeful lives.
thank you...SL

The author confuses righteousness & goodness with self-righteousness and moral superiority. The gentleness she speaks of towards the end is more of an active, humble compassion born from the recognition of her frailty. True righteousness and goodness necessarily incorporate this gentle compassion she desires.
Sadly, she anchors her framework in her mores rather than something more permanent that transcends her cultural and ethical paradigm.

Thanks for sharing.

Superbly stated Courtney! Good is passé. Yay for provocative and present :)

I'm heartened by this essay and also by all the intelligent responses. I see that many thoughtful people struggle with these exact questions. I grew up a Quaker and spent many years trying to be good and to "get it right." It has been liberating to discover that "goodness" is not a large enough house for me. It did not allow for enough kindness toward failure and so-called mistakes. I would rather be lively and honest, "quiet in heart, and in eye clear."(Wendell Berry). And it's a minute-by-minute practice. Thanks for sharing this.

To be Engaged and Humble is to not be Good? Some word play of the extreme kind going on here. Continue your search for the best value ... of good.

Steven Mitchell does a translation of the Tao Te Ching that so beautifully addresses this subject. When confronting modern day problems we would do well to revisit the ancient writings. Saints and Prophets spent their lives pondering the same questions we now try to sort thru in the moments we have to spare between the next urgent thing we have scheduled in ours. This manual on the art of living and the meaning of life, emphasises "doing not-doing". Of "BEING" the peace. It is a concept that is central to most Spiritual Practices yet we continue to attempt to add "Self" to the equasion and with it comes conflict for there are so many "Selfs". We can continue to try to reconcile or we can begin the action of right living. "BE the change we wish to see".

I'm so happy to read this.

Love this reflection. Especially for the young who become easily disheartened by the largeness of the task to address the problems they (we) face. After teaching them to be responsible stewards of the earth, now I hear my young adult son say "what difference does recycling this bottle make in the face of the massive plastics that continue to be produced?". I say we must continue to do what we can and what is in front of us to do.

Thank you for expressing so eloquently something that's been on my mind lately. Very well written.

The day after an election when it feels like the enemy has won it's good to be reminded that even the little things we do, grow some of our own food, harvest rain for the garden, drive an economy car, does make a difference.None of us are responsible for saving the world, only with giving care to the corner we inhabit. If we all do that, the world will take care of itself.

I used to walk by this house on my daily walk. The house had a sign on that said. "Be Nice or Leave." I still want to sneak up onto the porch and replace "Nice" with "Real."

Great article!

This is absolutely beautiful, and so spot on. Some of the things you wrote here, it's like they don't seem like they should be able to be put into words, and yet you find a way to do it. Thank you so, so much for this wonderful reflection :)

I have lived 70 years and a couple months. I did good. I was in a helping profession usually associated with a high income but I was honest. I helped my family members and those in need. Now I am poor because I got run over by those who are not good. I do not feel all warm and fuzzy about it. Frankly it sucks.

I imagine you have already reached the gentleness you seek just by recognizing it is what you "want". Doing good and being good are two different things and recognizing a need leads to action, sometimes long before there is an ask. Discomfort also leads to action and you making it a worthwhile endeavor is something I felt for a long time. Thank you for putting into words what is uncomfortable to deal with on a daily basis.

Powerful,truth! May I have the courage to pass it along!

This was thought provoking. I enjoyed your take on this topic and the questions you posed.

Amen, sista! I feel an immediate sense of my shoulders dropping with a little less tension and weight of "being good" just letting my eyes rest on your words. Salve to my hard-working, ethically spinning, soul. Thank you so!

Your actions especially being provocative depends so much on the context of your life.

Micah 6:8 says the same thing as what you are saying, I think. The "goodness" is the end... not the means. It is the product of living with simplicity in mind.

There is so much polarization in Washington born from opposing beliefs on what, exactly, is "good." I sometimes wonder if our very definitions of "good" and "evil" are opposites. Your article offers a clue as to where we can find some common ground.

Excellent piece that captures the frustrations of trying to do "good" and have "impact" when the vicissitudes of daily life often pull in opposite directions. I love this quote, "the alternative is to let your actions be inspired — not by goodness but by curiosity." Too much of the time we go about our routines with an uninspired lack of curiosity, especially as we grow older and more "wise" in our own eyes. Great advice, even for this old dude!

Thank you for an honest approach to exercising one's social conscience. I am a bit surprised by the notion of feeling righteous after choosing one action over another of equally ambiguous value. Is it important that we feel righteous or is it better to let the mental or spiritual discomfort work on us to help us make a better choice next time? As for Beverly's musing about whether God alone can show goodness, Jesus delivered the parable of the Good Samaritan to say just the opposite. Finally, the use of an expletive at the end of the third paragraph from last is also disappointing in the context of On Being's Web presence. Just last week Krista Tippett made a point of changing the language of someone she was quoting to eliminate expletives. All of that notwithstanding, thank you for a fine essay.

Truth spoken here. Thank you.

No trivial artist-signatures, no puppet-play, no pretense of free will: go for first-class reality. I conclude that humans should do their best and do it bravely, emulating the nobility of Nature, but aware that their lives are serious, but not important.What's done in earnest is done outside us.

I really love this article...the idea of being real, present, humble, engaged....all are truly worthy "ways of being"....

Courtney, you describe so well what I have been experiencing. I find curiosity a spiritual practice. As a UU myself,on my way to being a minister, I am moving in the direction of being gentle with myself and bringing my curiosity and gentleness to others. It serves me well as an interfaith chaplain in a hospital where I encounter many people from many walks in life-in patients and in staff. Thank you for sharing.

I love this! A refreshing fountain of antidystopianism: yay! Will share with pastors i work with as outreach nurse with Nashville General Hospital. Yes: everything matters, and cooler heads + warmer hearts can prevail.

How Incredibly ~ All Well Stated~ 'awe../ah'yes...Splendid Words ---"Well Spent here"