Read this quote:
“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
If you were to take a wild guess, would you say that the person who wrote this was a productive member of society? Do you think that he or she was the type of person who helped others, who contributed meaningfully to his or her community? Was he or she a good person?
If you’re like most people (which, if you read this blog, you’re probably not, but bear with me), you’d probably answer “no” to those questions.
And you’d be dead wrong, because the author of those dismal thoughts was Abraham Lincoln.
This past weekend, my Jewish education group had its second retreat of the quarter. (I wrote about the first one here.)
One of our many discussions during the retreat was on which qualities are necessary for someone to be a good person (however one defines “good”). Some of my group’s suggestions, such as empathy, seemed completely accurate.
Some, however, did not. One student mentioned that she thinks that liking yourself is a prerequisite to being a good person, and everyone enthusiastically agreed.
I waited for her to explain. She said that you have to be fine with yourself before you can focus on being a good person to other people. She said that not liking yourself is unhealthy. (And unhealthy, by extension, must mean bad.)
I said, “What if the person you are right now just isn’t likable to you?”
She said, “Well, then you would just be bitter.”
I said, “I don’t like myself and I’m not bitter.”
She stammered, said sorry, and left the subject alone.
Here’s the thing. I would agree that genuinely liking yourself is a pretty good goal to have in terms of your own psychological development. However, I completely oppose the moralization of this quality. That is, I oppose the idea that liking yourself makes you a “good” person and that not liking yourself makes you a “bad” person. I also oppose the idea that you can’t be a “good” person unless you like yourself.
I have several reasons for opposing this concept. One is that I truly don’t believe that your opinion of yourself is strongly correlated with your treatment of others and your ability to contribute positively to society. There’s a stereotype of people who have low self-worth as selfish, miserable, and–as the girl in my group said–bitter. While it’s quite possible that not liking yourself would lead some people to be this way, it can also push people to turn outwards and do incredible things for others. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, may have been one such person.
Second, while the argument that you must like yourself in order to be a good person does not necessarily imply that liking yourself automatically makes you a good person, I think that’s something that should be examined. Once you do that, you’ll hopefully realize that there’s simply no connection. Some people who like themselves are great people. Some are horrible people. Some like themselves so much that they don’t give a crap about anyone else.
Third, there is an illness that up to a quarter of adults will experience at some point during their lives that has as one of its symptoms feeling worthless and hating yourself. That, of course, is depression. I hope I don’t have to explain why I find the suggestion that depressed people can’t be “good” people to be inaccurate, superficial, and downright offensive.
Fourth, all of this hinges on one’s personal definition of a “good person,” which was never elaborated on during our discussion. (I find that in conversations of a religious nature, these things tend to just be left undefined.) To me, a person who isn’t good is a person who has the opportunity to help others but chooses not to. A person who cannot help others due to circumstances beyond his or her control should not be labeled as “bad.” So if disliking yourself really is keeping you from helping others, that doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. It just means you have to work on your issues before you can put your goodness into action.
As I told the girl in my group, I dislike myself. There are two main reasons for that. One is that I have depression, and as I mentioned, that’s one of its symptoms. The other is that the culture I live in rejects many of my most defining traits, and it’s really, really hard to like yourself when you’re bombarded with cultural messages that tell you that you’re unlikeable.
With time, I’ll probably learn how to ignore those messages. But to suggest that I can’t be a good person right now because of them (and because of my depression) is extremely condescending. I do my best to be a good friend, daughter, sister, and leader in the Northwestern community. I have found causes that I support and advocate for them tirelessly. Because of my openness about my own experiences with mental illness, I have been able to serve as a source of information and support for many other people that I’ve met over the past few years.
Now, that’s hardly on the level of, say, Abraham Lincoln. But it’s more than a lot of other people my age do. A lot of the ones, I might add, who insist that this time of our lives is a time to “just focus on me” and “just do what I want.”
Liking yourself is great. It feels nice. But we shouldn’t confuse it with having the ability and the desire to do good.