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Almost everyone wants to be good, but few people think they can sustain it over time. That’s because being good always requires hard work. Even so, it is flattering and a personal honor to be considered “a good person” by those who know you.
It is harder to be good than it is to be great. Greatness tends to be situational. A small number of people can be great musicians or great athletes. But this almost always happens in the context of providing a highly skilled performance under limited circumstances and within a specific time frame. Being good, on the other hand, requires long-term dedication to an achievement standard that seems impossible to maintain for more than a brief period of time.
Here is Baha’u’llah’s definition of what it means to be good:
Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer to the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge.
Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression.
Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring.
Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility. (Baha’i World Faith, p. 136)
It is almost impossible to read that 241-word description of what it means to be good — even if you set aside the rich poetic symbolism that permeates much of it — without thinking to yourself: I could never do that.
In fact, you can. Just not all at once. No one can be suddenly or instantly good. But goodness is a human behavioral characteristic, and that means it can be acquired. Being good does not mean being perfect. No one can be perfect. However, almost everyone can strive to gradually and steadily improve his or her daily performance and develop what it takes to be good.
How do you do that? Basically, becoming good means combining prayer and the practical.
The spiritual part of this two-part method might actually be harder, partly because our society is becoming more secular and less explicitly religious. Some people don’t trust the idea of prayer, because it is common for people to pray usually when they want something. Those prayers tend to sound something like that old joke: “God, please give me $10 million, so I can prove what a good a person I am.”
But, the main reason prayer is hard is because praying involves admitting that we are sometimes powerless to control our own impulses and actions — that we need God’s help to change things. It actually takes self-reflection and character strength, the kind gained through prayer, to accept those concepts. Over time, prayer encourages us to act in a modest and humble manner, and that’s essential to being good.
The basis of humility, and of being good, is to believe that what other people need is more important to you than what you need. Prayer helps you understand, when your need to help others outweighs your need to help yourself, that you are becoming good. So, if you want to be good, your first task is to find the motivation to live your life in service to others. Prayer can help supply that motivation. This creates a positive feedback loop — to do something with pure intentions amplifies the goodness in the act itself, and prayer helps us to continually purify our intent.
The practical aspect of being good is based on the concept that it does not matter what you believe; all that counts is how you act. So, being good involves learning how to behave in a new way.
Typically, this may involve starting out small and being of service to others, even if only in a limited way. Being good requires constant practice, because goodness is a learned behavior and not merely an attitude.
The practical side of this equation holds that your actions, repeated and reinforced over time, influence how you feel and become your mental model of how to behave. And, like all behaviors, this habitual conduct becomes stronger over time. So, the longer your good behavior governs your actions, the better you become at being a good person.
None of us are ever likely to become great at being good, but that doesn’t matter. Being consistently and steadily good does two things, and both of them are beneficial. Being good makes us better people, and it inspires those who know us to improve their own behavior and try to be good as well. And those results are more than good enough.