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How to be a Good Member of Society

Tips for Becoming a Good Member of Society

 Being a good member of society remains a work in progress from childhood through old age.  As we go from experience to experience, our character and integrity is tested in real life situations.  It’s not like we have an abstract ideal in front of us that we are trying to reach; we’re just trying to get through life’s events with enough dignity and self-worth to be an asset to our communities instead of a liability.  We even recognize when someone’s going about it all wrong – like the peace activist who yells at a driver for taking a coveted parking space, or the nature lover who climbs over the fences protecting the sand dunes to get a photograph.

 Someone who is paying no attention at all to being a good member of society may, like the devil himself, enjoy doing bad things instead of good things.  Most of us do a devilish thing now and then; that’s part of being human.  But doing bad things day after day – the road rage and other forms of belligerence, the time spent on personal matters while at work, the lying and cheating that we tolerate and excuse – those patterns of behavior can come to dominate a personality.  The over-inflated concept of the self is crowding out the concept of a social order.  If you constantly need to let others see how tough or deceitful you can be, the world will think you’re a stinker, and probably up to something illegal.

 Have you ever met a person who is working so hard to create an image of pure goodness she can’t admit to any faults?  We call her “goody two-shoes” and look for someone else to party with because it’s no fun being around people who are busy being good citizens all of the time.  We seem to think that celebrities are such good members of society they can do no wrong, and then we pay millions of dollars for the media stories confirming that they, too, have foibles and feet of clay.   Good people have flaws.  Being a good member of society means admitting (even if just to ourselves) when and where our character needs a little strengthening and being willing to do that work.

 Being a good member of society also means being able to see the good in others, even when they evoke anger, irritation, or disgust.  Most of the people in our lives have at least one specific quality we can admire and respect.  Shakira talks warmly to store clerks wherever she goes and makes them feel that she cares about each one as a person.  Carlos puts his family first and looks for opportunities to help out young and old alike in his extended family.  Gracie knows how to express genuine gratitude for small favors, and tries to reciprocate in some way to everyone.  Lynn and Yusef save a quarter of their vegetable garden to give to the food bank, and always call the shelters when they have an appliance or an electronic device to give away.  Throughout our lives we are surrounded by role models for various ways of being a good member of society.  It takes some effort to keep selecting, learning, and developing the behaviors we want to incorporate into a definition of our own personal sense character, but that’s what being a good member of society is all about. 

 Fortunately, through the efforts of parents, church leaders, peers, teachers, writers, and a host of others, the majority of us end up choosing a well-traveled road.  We’re drawn to those who are courteous and kind, helpful and patient, giving and open, and involved in fixing society’s ills.  Wanting to be seen as one of the good guys, we pay attention to good works and good words and try to learn how to do the same. 

 However, each of our life stories is unique.  We have our own families and friends, read our own choice of books and magazines, attend different schools, and work in different jobs.  Along the way we’ll have many unique opportunities to fashion some version of the good member of society.  Because your experiences and temperament are different from mine, some of what we choose will be different, and you and I will become different people as a result.

 A few years ago I learned from my neighbor, whom I’ll call Walt, the difference between offering neighborly help and being the sort of neighbor everyone wishes they had.  The story starts with a rusted, bent clothesline made out of six pipes that was an eyesore in my back yard; I wanted to remove it and have a wooden one put up.  When Walt heard this, he offered to winch the rusty poles out of the ground with the power winch on an old bucket truck he has.  That alone was a bigger help than I anticipated.  As Walt ran the winch, out came the pole – along with a thick cement footing about 2 feet long attached at the bottom.  I would never have been able to dig those up!  We started calling them torpedoes and marveling at the size and depth of the holes that had to be created when the poles were set in the ground.

 “What do you want to do with the poles?”  Walt asked.

 I hadn’t thought about that.  “Let’s lay them down by the garage.  They’ll be out of the way and someday I can get them to the dump.”

 But first Walt went home for his welding torch and came back to separate the cement torpedoes from the poles.  Then he went and got his dolly, loaded each torpedo onto that and rolled it over to the garage.  The pipes he laid in a neat pile by the garage.  I had no idea how I was going to get all that to the dump.

 The next morning, though, I thought I heard a truck in my driveway.  When I went to look, there was Walt loading the torpedoes and the pipes onto his pick up, which he had already loaded with his own trash to take to the dump.  “What a great guy!”  I thought.  “He didn’t have to do that.”

 But Walt wasn’t done.  Later in the morning, I heard his truck out there again.  He had gone to get loam and was on his knees carefully filling each hole where the pipes had been and tamping the dirt down so the ground would be level.

 I’ve known Walt long enough now to know that the thoroughness he brought to that job is characteristic of all of his good deeds.  When he offers his help, to a person or to the community at large, he will do the work with the same focus and eye for detail he would use if he were doing the job for his own family.  He’s a good citizen worth emulating.

 A good member of society is also someone who arranges events that make others feel like good members of society.  For example, every year a colleague of mine at work contacts the local agency that helps families in need, obtains a Christmas wish list for one of the families, and organizes a drive to encourage each co-worker to contribute one item for that family’s wish list.  Each individual contributor then feels like a good citizen for doing something specific to help the needy, and the group has a collective sense of being good members of society to have done such a thing.  The sheer quantity of volunteer work that goes on in our communities is owing to dozens of good people who can inspire hundreds of us to participate in walkathons, collect canned goods, clean up rivers, befriend a teen in trouble, and so on.

 If you want the good citizen label to have cross-cultural and enduring meaning, you’ll most likely have to be part of a large cause – such as economic justice, global peace, universal health care, or environmental conservation – and focus your energy and resources in that direction. Think about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King (civil rights), Crystal Lee Sutton (“Norma Rae;” worker’s rights), Paul Farmer (medical care in the poorest countries), Greg Mortensen (education, especially for girls, in Afghani villages), Jane Goodall (preserving chimpanzees and all of nature), and Caesar Chavez (rights of migrant farm laborers).   Such passionate commitments require that we read as much as we can about all aspects of the problem, attend meetings and workshops, and donate our money and our time to the cause.  The issues are so complex that the organizations working to find solutions need all of the intellectual and creative energy we each have to offer – probably over the course of our whole lifetime.

 No matter how important these efforts are to make our community and our world a better place, being a good member of society is always rooted in ourselves.  It’s pointless to save the spotted owl while cheating on your taxes, or to toss old tires down the river bank on your day off from volunteering at the senior center, or to otherwise pretend that doing something good makes up for whatever you’re doing that’s rotten or wrong. The list of good citizen attributes we could develop is inexhaustible.  You and I have to remain engaged in the dynamics of reflecting on and refining our personal behavior – the ways in which we can say we are a good person – because that process is fundamental to being a good citizen.