“Go Where the Good Is” and “Learn How to Be Useful”

“Go where the good is” and “Learn how to be useful”: simple phrases that, when enacted upon, have enormous consequences.

Last night I told my son Pat that I was proud of him. He advocates at court for youth who are abused at home, many of whom have parents who abuse drugs or alcohol. His regular work is computer programming, not counseling or nursing or doctoring. He wanted to help others, so he jumped in and volunteered, even though the advocacy position is unrelated to his daily job. Pat took the necessary training, and now he researches for the court what the circumstances are at these broken homes (a task that I presume must be emotionally demanding of him–seeing the meanness toward one another that people are capable of). Now he represents the youths’ interests while their future is being determined in court.

Two of my friends, Gene and Sandy, have advocated for birds, natural habitat, and the environment their entire lives. They’re in their seventies, (I think) and it’s an energetic and positive seventh decade they live. Each has been a president or officer of the Kitsap Audubon Society (KAS) multiple times, and they’ve led many people on birdwatching expeditions and bird counts. Gene edits The Kingfisher, which is the monthly newsletter of the KAS, and both he and Sandy represent nature’s interests (and, therefore, peoples’ interests) in groups such as the KAS, the West Sound Conservation Council, or they write letters to Washington State legislators expressing support for bills that protect plants, animals, and habitat. Gene and Sandy do lots of good for animals, plants, and people.

These examples lead me to two principles that—as the years go by and I observe the consequences of good and bad words and actions—I’m coming to admire:

1. Go where the good is.

2. Learn how to be useful. It’ll take a lot of the mystery out of life.

“Go where the good is.” In other words: search out examples of people and groups doing good, be inspired by these role models, and—when it comes to your own speech and actions—try to choose good.

I was sitting at a cafe one morning in Warsaw, watching children playing near a fountain. During that morning’s walk, I’d seen pictures posted in the city of Pope John Paul II meeting people around the world and bringing to them hope and goodness. The previous day, my wife and I had toured Auschwitz, where we’d seen the incinerators and the pictures of people and shoes. I wondered—as I watched these happy, healthy children playing during this life-filled, fresh, clear morning—how so much good and so much evil could have occurred in the same place.

People do bad or good and they speak mean or nice. As Marcus Aurelius observed in his Meditations, we choose how we live the short moment that is each of our lives, and we decide how we respond to other peoples’ bad and good actions and speech. We can’t control others’ actions and speech; we can only control our own.

That morning, as I drank coffee and listened to the children’s laughter, I realized that great good and evil having been done in the same place is so in many places. I thought of how Italians in Rome love children, but that the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christians. As I travel through Idaho and Oregon, I meet kind people who engage in community good works, and yet I know that in these same lands their ancestors drove the Nez Perce Indians from their lands. The internet especially, with its broad reach, confronts us with the good and evil that’s present in many places around the world. While I experience and blog about the wonders of God’s nature, a man who reads my notes writes a blog about war experiences during which he repeatedly witnessed rape, torture, and murder.

It’s harder to find the good in some places, but I am reminded that Elie Wiesel, in his book Night, concluded that people who were more likely to strive to survive in Auschwitz (this most extreme of human circumstances) had within them a purpose for living: some good or some usefulness for which they clung to life.

“Learn how to be useful. It’ll take a lot of the mystery out of life.” Harrison Ford said this in an interview published in Parade magazine in 2020.

What a kernel of guiding truth this is, and there are so many ways available to each of us to put our labor and skills to good use. I often read of writers who lament, “Why am I spending hours in my room typing?” and yet I see wonderfully worded posters and brochures extolling the history and the nature details of our national parks. Someone put those words on paper: perhaps a writer-in-residence who took his or her ability to put words together clearly and in an entertaining fashion to educate people about how the parks came to be—a wonderfully useful application of unique skills, and there are so many causes and advocacy groups that need good writers.

So it goes with many professions: Not only can we use our skills (home building, doctoring, plumbing, computer programming, editing) to earn a living, but also we can volunteer some of those skills for where they’re especially needed—to benefit other people and species. In turn, we justify ourselves.

As Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained civilian leader of Myanmar (who has been thrust into an almost no-win political situation in which she’s had to compromise to survive to do good for her country) said, “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.”

We each choose our words and deeds during our hours and days of living. Each statement, each post, each behavior toward other people and other species, and toward our Earth, is a decision about how we live our lives. Witnessing Pat, Gene, and Sandy taking the actions they take, I see three people allocating some of their time and talents to create goodness.

“Go where the good is” and “Learn how to be useful”: two simple phrases with enormous consequences.

“And whatever you do, do it with kindness and love.”
— 1st Corinthians

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