To be or not to be good. That is the question.

What does it take to be “good” these days?

When I was a kid, it was easy: be nice to others, listen to my parents, and always try to do my best. That made me a “good kid.” And I was a good kid. I was helpful and kind, maybe not all the time, and I did what I was told, almost all the time, and I always tried my best at everything I did (that interested me). So, I didn’t get into trouble. I didn’t really rebel. I got pushed around by bigger kids, but not too much.

Eventually, I grew up a little, and I did start to work hard, especially after goofing off a bit at the beginning of college, which led me to find out that I really did have to work to succeed. I continued to try to be nice to people, but I found out in high school, and again in college, that if one is too nice, people take advantage of it. I didn’t have to listen to my parents too much because they didn’t tell me to do much. They considered me an adult by the time I went to college, and, as an adult, I had to make my own decisions. But there was a problem. I rarely got what I wanted. People who were jerks, who took what they wanted, who pushed people aside, sometimes physically, got what they wanted. The rules of the animal world, of survival of the (physically) fittest, began to take over. At first, I was surprised. I had been bred to be civilized for a world that wasn’t. Then I became a bit of an asshole too. To survive.

Once I got out of school, I discovered that what I perceived in college seemed to be right: if you want something, you have to take it. So, I fought, I schemed, I left behind anyone who didn’t help me in some way, and I took a lot of risks. The results? I became one of the top independent sound mixers in the New York film industry within five years. I had my own apartment in Manhattan, my own gear for my job, and a job in which I had fun. I also ate poorly, drank too much, gained a lot of weight, lost friends, amassed debt, and suffered from depression. But I had made something of myself, right? My parents were proud of me for having a dream of working in film and reaching it. But was I a good person? I had friends. I dated women. People looked up to me. Didn’t that make me good?

Then my father got sick — cancer — and needed help after a while with things because he got tired easily from the treatments. I needed to be there for him, not for me. I loved my father, so I passed on a job that would have taken me out of town. I spent days and nights at his apartment in Jersey to help him out, along with my brother, who lived near him. In December of 2000, I saved his life by staying the night at his place. A medication he was taking for his cancer prevented him from clotting and he started to bleed. I got him to the hospital before he bled out. Had I not been there, he would have died then. For a brief moment, when he stabilized, I knew I was a good person. I had done all the right things that led to my father’s survival that time.

While he was in the hospital that winter, I took a night off, leaving my brother to watch over my father, and went to a Christmas party for independent film technicians like myself. I had shaved my mustache and goatee, removed my earring that I had had for ten years, got dressed up and went. It was at a popular bar in the East Village of Manhattan, and I knew nearly everyone there, having worked for over six years in film at that point. I had a few beers, listen to and told stories about various films we had all worked on, and, generally, had a good time. Then, one friend of mine who was a key grip and had just gotten back from his honeymoon with his make-up artist wife was hanging out with me and he said something that would change everything.

“We’re the kids who ran off to join the circus, who didn’t want to grow up,” he said. “Look at us, playing with our toys, telling stories to entertain people. We’re like a group of kids playing together in a playground.”

I was floored. He was right. Was I doing anything with my life that was actually worthy? That was right? I basically was working hard to get my name as well-known as possible at doing what? Creating entertainment for two hours for people. That’s it. I was helping to make movies that would just entertain people. No one cared about what I did. I wasn’t helping anyone. I wasn’t contributing to the world. I wasn’t a good person. I was purely selfish. Just having fun, playing with toys, and, periodically, wishing I were dead. Why? Because I was working hard to be the best at something that was not doing anything to improve the world — to be nice to people. I had to get out.

So, long story short, I worked my way out of film and into being a teacher because I wanted to give something back. To do good. To work hard to improve life. To help mold a future that is better than the present. I wanted to be a good person again. I hadn’t been in a long time. But now it’s harder than ever, mainly because very few people want to be good people. From what I see every day, most people, no matter their ages, just want whatever they can get for themselves out of life. Even when they do volunteer work, it’s to assuage their own guilt for having so much more than others, not to actually help people.

Thus, I am stuck. I want to be a good person — to be nice to others, be a good parent and teacher, and always do my best — but is it worth the fight, the disappointment, and the pain? Why shouldn’t I just do the minimum to get by, teach my daughter to just take whatever she can get out of anyone and everyone, and ignore those around me?

My life would be a lot easier.

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