The Good Within Reach

I was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals last night and there is a scene right after Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation.  Even though it was obviously a controversial measure at the time, a lot of the people in Washington had a joyous celebration that evening.  I remember feeling really happy recently when the news came on and it said that we were establishing a diplomatic relationship with Cuba.  A little door, once closed, now opened a sliver, with the possibility that there might just be a little more understanding between two countries.  I remember feeling happy when Obama was elected for the first time, or when Obama himself put an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Not because I was under any illusions that racism or bigotry had been destroyed, or that it was game over for injustice, or that white straight people like me should pat ourselves on the back.  It was because, whatever you think of the outcome of Obama’s Presidency, the world had become slightly more tolerant and inclusive, even if reality was and remains more complicated.  These were still pluses for civilization.

I keep being amazed by this new Pope.  Instead of spending most of the time focusing on petty internal religious doctrine, like his predecessors often did, he seems to be trying to make the world a more equal, tolerant, and just place.  Although I’m not Catholic and will never join a church of any kind, I find what he is doing to be appealing.

There is a quote that is supposedly by Lincoln himself, where he says, “When I do good, I feel good.  When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”  Now in all honesty, I can’t figure out if Lincoln actually said that, or if it is one of those quotes that has just been attributed to him over time.  Especially with the internet these days it is hard to tell.  But no matter, anyway you cut it it is a great quote.  (Lincoln was known to be a skeptic for much of his life, even if his views did change slightly towards the end of his life.  That still does not mean that he said the above quote.)

I don’t understand why more people don’t get that actually doing right by other people can actually make you feel good as well.   It can actually lead to the happiness that is so often missing in our lives.  Who do you think feels better at the end of the day:  The person that helps a gay couple get married, or someone that spent all their political time and energy getting the tax rate down 1%?

Now there is a funny line.  I’m not talking about feeling self-satisfaction for the kind of thing people should be doing anyway.  Like just because you decided to not be a racist, doesn’t mean you should get some reward.  I mean more the kind of pride and happiness one feels from doing a good job.  Like you can either go into a job and schlep your way through it, not hurting anyone, but not really helping anyone.  Or you can do the best that you can do and take some kind of pride in your work.  You don’t feel pride because you showed up one day and worked harder than normal.  I’m talking about a pride that comes from continuous effort to do the right thing, no matter what the circumstances.

You would think that more people would get addicted to kindness, would take pride in seeing the world become a better place, would feel happy about progress even if they themselves didn’t play any roll in it. Yet, I am never surprised when I see some kind of barbarous cruelty on TV.  Meanwhile when I saw the news about Cuba, I was not only happy, but I was flat out surprised.  Why are we so often incapable of seeing the good that is possible, that is just around the corner, within reach?

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