You probably want to be a good person. But you may also be completely self-absorbed. So you may be thinking, “There is no way I can be good if I’m also a narcissist. Isn’t being good all about caring about other people?” But how wrong you are!
We live in a culture of selfism — a culture that puts tremendous emphasis on self, on self-care and self-display. And one of the things we’ve discovered is that you can be a very good person while thinking only about yourself!
Back in the old days people thought morality was about living up to some external standard of moral excellence.
But now we know this is actually harmful! In the first place, when people hold up external standards of moral excellence, they often make you feel judged. These people make you feel sad because you may not live up to this standard. It’s very cruel of them to make you feel troubled in this way! When somebody does this, you should just say, “That makes me feel judged,” and just walk away.
The second problem with these external standards is that they are hard to relate to. People are always talking about how Nelson Mandela came out of prison and tried to usher in an era of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s all very well and good for Mandela, but what does this have to do with your life?
If people are talking to you, shouldn’t they be focusing their attention on your life? Shouldn’t they be saying things you can relate to? If somebody starts talking about some grand hero who is dead or lives far away, you should just respond, “Sorry, that’s not relatable.”
These people have to learn to keep it real!
The good news is that these days we don’t base our values on moral excellence. We base them on meaning. People are always saying they want a meaningful life. They want to do things that have “meaning.”
One great thing about meaning is it’s all about the emotions you yourself already have. We say an experience has meaning when that tingly meaningful feeling wells up inside. Picture yourself shopping at a farmers market where everything’s locally grown. Do you feel the tingly meaningful feeling welling up inside? Of course you do!
The other great thing about meaning is that everybody gets to define meaning in his or her own way. You don’t have to read a lot of thick books or have hard experiences to feel meaning. Just do things that give you good feelings!
So now you are probably wondering what you can do to get the tingly meaningful feeling inside. Well, this is a four-stage process.
First, you want to feel indignant all the time. Back in the old days morality was about serving others. Now it’s about displaying indignation about things other people are doing wrong. When you are indignant, or woke, you are showing you have a superior moral awareness. You don’t have to actually do anything. Your indignation is a sign of your own goodness, and if you can be indignant quicker than the people around you, that just shows how much more good you are!
Second, you want to make yourself heard. You want to put up a lawn sign that says, “Hate is not welcome here” or wear a T-shirt that says, “Stop the Violence.” By putting up a lawn sign that everybody else in your neighborhood already has, or wearing that T-shirt that all of your friends already wear, you are taking a stand and displaying who you are. You’re showing the people who are trying to silence you that you are not going to stay silent! You are going to wear your fashion item whether they like it or not!
The third thing you want to do is tell your story. It wasn’t easy to come up with feelings as good as your feelings. You had to go through a lot. You want to inspire others by sharing about yourself. Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is talk about yourself a lot. Sometimes you have to keep talking about yourself even though other people, selfishly, keep interrupting and trying to talk about themselves.
The fourth thing you need to do is condemn bad people. If somebody says something new or bad, you need to get on your phone right away. You need to tap the parts of the screen that will make it obvious that you are the sort of person who will not stand for bad people saying bad things. This isn’t easy because sometimes your phone is low on battery power, but you still need to show up! You need to protect people from hearing ideas they may not already have! I hope this column helps you lead a more meaningful life. But remember: You’re already perfect just the way you are!
—David Brooks is a columnist with the New York Times.