The Good Question
What’s your earliest memory of doing good? Not being good, as in behaving well. Not doing something well, as in succeeding. But doing good in the sense of walking through life and giving your best to what you encounter. What was your first good action?
In my hometown parochial school, the upper part of the kindergarten walls were painted with portraits of white-bearded God and brown-bearded Jesus in flowing robes and pearly clouds. There was Good, hovering impossibly high above me where I sat at a long low table, small hands clutching fat waxy crayons or trying to tie my shoes the way I was taught and thereby be worthy of heaven. Good was lofty, like God on the ceiling. It was huge and spectacular and universal.
That’s not the good I mean.
Closer to the ground and just a few blocks from my house: my local dance studio. I started ballet lessons there when I was 5. It provided ample opportunity for me to do good in a way that was different from home or school or church – different, I suppose, because there was no reward or punishment. If you wanted to dance, well, here was a place to do it and a way to go about it. I wanted to dance. When I was old enough to cross the street alone, I got myself to class on time – early, in fact. I prepared all my gear –tights, shoes, hairpins. I fetched tea for the teacher, Miss Kelly (milk, two sugars) from the deli next door. I watched the class before mine and learned from it. When it was my turn to take my place at the barre, I slid my foot out to its fullest point, then slid it back in again until heel touched heel in a seamless, satisfying first position. And I repeated this again and again – bending my knees, pushing through my arches, bringing a curved arm back down to its starting position precisely with the music — interested every time, attentive to corrections, flinging my skinny imperfect body into leaps and turns. Trying. I did not think of it then as doing good. I was simply absorbed and alert.
I say there was no reward, but that’s not quite true; there were dreams involved. I was working with discipline in the hope of becoming a great dancer. But as you may know, as time goes by, you put certain dreams to bed, like so many children – some go quietly, some kicking and screaming – until one day you find yourself awake alone, wondering just what this life is all about, and what you might do with the time you have left so as not to make a total mess of it. This is where Benjamin Franklin and the Good Question comes in.
Seeing through the lens of good
Franklin, an American statesman and inventor, was an original thinker. In 1726, when he was 20 years old, he challenged himself to live a life guided by 13 virtues. As part of this endeavor, he made a daily schedule. First thing every morning, he asked himself this question:
What good shall I do this day?
And in the evening:
What good have I done today?
These questions speak to me. They respond to that niggling voice that wonders what life’s about and how to live it well. What a revelation, to view the day through the lens of good – not goody-two-shoes, virtue-signalling good; not huge, spectacular, universal good that will save humanity and get me into heaven; but good that is small, humble, local, and above all do-able.
But what exactly does “doing good” mean? Ah, well. Defining that is most of the fun. Patti Smith might say: do good work, build a good name. Jordan Peterson might say: clean your room. I would say: Get interested in whatever your immediate world requires of you. Pull in your heel again and again, as best you can each time.
Good intention, good action
I decided to try it. I began waking up and asking myself, “How shall I do good today?” And at the end of the day, I ask myself what good I have done. Sometimes I write it down, sometimes I just think about it. Sometimes I forget. And that’s fine too.
Framing the day in these terms means looking at how you’re likely to spend your time and thinking about how you might do good in those situations. It’s a gracious variation on the usual to-do list, setting an intention that makes everything an opportunity to do your best, to be authentic, to act with dignity, or honesty, or humor, or clarity, or kindness.
However you define it, doing good implies action in the world. The Good Question emphasizes the quality you bring to your interaction with what’s around you. When I practiced Zen Buddhism, one of the teachers used to say that sitting still in meditation was the highest, noblest thing you could do, as all the senses are at rest and you are creating no karma. Even at the time I found it a strange notion. Being still, not leaving a footprint, is perhaps a good starting point, or a good place to come back to from time to time; but we don’t live in a vacuum. Our reality is not only stillness, it is also movement – our perpetual movement bumping up against the perpetual movement of everything around us. The Good Question is really about how to live that movement as a dance rather than an assault or a burden.
Zen was one of those children that did not go to bed quietly. After I’d left the practice, I heard that someone said of me, by way of criticism: “That Elaine, she threw herself completely into Zen, and now she’ll go and throw herself into something else.” You bet I will. Absorbed and alert. Flinging myself into leaps and turns. What good shall I do today?
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. You can also join her for Write & Breathe: regular meetups combining writing for wellbeing and conscious breathing.
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