This I Believe
This essay is my response to This I Believe, a print compilation of a radio series started by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and revived by National Public Radio. The series challenges people—of high stature or none—to speak for three minutes on the philosophy that guides their lives. The series includes statements by folks like Robert A. Heinlein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Robinson as well as more modern voices like Newt Gingrich, John McCain, and Colin Powell. The essays range from profound to smile-provoking (how can you not like a statement that begins “You cannot have enough barbeque”?). I don’t believe anyone’s life will be changed by these essays, but they might at least inspire some thought in readers about what philosophy they use to get through the day. Here’s mine.
Try to Be a Good Man
If I’ve had anything drilled into my head by my family, it’s the notion of being a good man. They probably never used those words, but they meant that behind every lecture, every piece of advice (solicited or otherwise), and every gift they ever gave me.
As an adult child of divorce now in my 40s, I lived most of my life without Dad in the house. This is not a rebuke to my parents; I am simply stating a fact. What that meant to a child of the “latch-key” generation was that I was the man of the house. It also meant, when it came to figuring out who and how to be, I was pretty much on my own. So like anyone given an assignment with few parameters and lots of room for error, I winged it. I noted what sort of behaviors were admired by other family members and tried to internalize those models.
I’ve had to learn, usually through screwing up, how to do not just the right thing, but the good thing, or the right thing done well. How should I put this? It is not a matter of just doing your job right or wrong. When I was in grad school for technical writing, we read excerpts of technical manuals from Nazi machines designed specifically to kill large numbers of people. One could do that job “right” but still be flat-out wrong. So being a good man also means having knowledge of good and evil, having a conscience. These I absorbed from church, but also from my experiences of living in and observing the world.
I’ve been called an idealist and a perfectionist by peers and managers and people who have worked for me. That doesn’t quite explain who I am. The goal for me hasn’t been to be perfect. I’ve had the recognition early on, and every day since then, that I will always be imperfect. So my goal has always been, “Get better!”
It means not just knowing the right thing to say, but when to say it.
It means not just knowing the right thing to do, but doing it.
It means doing the right things in ways that are unobtrusive, humble, and polite. I do good for the good of my soul, not because I’m interested in looking better than someone else.
I do not always get these things right, and I lecture myself when I know I could have done better. But every day is a new opportunity to try again. Trying to be a good man filters into everything else you do, so it’s a good place to begin. It’s where I began to think like an adult. And sometimes, even if you don’t hit the mark, others appreciate the effort.