For Goodness’ Sake …a few thoughts about what ‘good’ means
The other day, I was sniffing some interesting bushes in a park, and a girl walked by without looking, and almost stepped on me. I jumped, and she screamed, and froze, trembling, afraid to move. Clearly, she was really scared, and thought I’d bite her.
Then, with all the voice she could muster – a whisper – she said, “Please be a good dog. Good doggy.” I sniffed her leg, and gave her a little kiss on the knee, but, seeing how frightened she was, thought it best to walk away and leave her to breathe.
This whole thing got me thinking, though. About what humans mean when they say someone’s “Good.” Now in her case, she meant that a good dog is one that doesn’t rip her legs off, expressing wishful thinking that I was at least that good! But that’s not what Handsome means when he calls me good. And when he angrily calls me “Bad Girl!” that’s not because I’ve ripped his body apart in fury!
So, just what does it mean when someone says that someone is a good dog, or a good person?
The more I thought about it, the more complex it got. And for my doggy brain, that was really hard. But here’s what I came up with:
“Good” can just mean the absence of “Bad.” Like that girl in the park – she didn’t know my best qualities, or even care about them. She didn’t know about how I protect our house, how I try to keep the yard squirrel-free, how I make sure Handsome feels loved every day by jumping on him and getting his nicest clothes all muddy and hairy… and I have no doubt she doesn’t know that I work hours daily to help out my pack member buddies with their troubles! No, she just hoped I wouldn’t hurt her.
But “Good” can also mean other things. For example, Handsome says it to me with a lot of meanings: When he trains me, “Good” means I did a trick right. When I catch a really difficult ball in the air, “Good” means impressive, that I did something really cool. And when he’s falling asleep and I curl up alongside him and he scratches my ears and says “such a good girl,” “Good” means that he loves my heart.
But when you hear that word used about humans, it very rarely means those same things. In the “Lord of the Rings” stories, for example, when Frodo’s always talking about his friend “Good Sam,” he’s talking about the goodness of Sam’s loyalty. And when you hear people refer to someone they’re introducing as “oh you’ll like her; she’s good,” they’re talking about how well she fits in with their group’s expected behaviors, such as having the right sense of humor or liking certain activities (In other words, “she’s good” could mean someone who likes to go hunting, or someone who’d never harm an animal, depending on who’s talking).
Then of course there’s the term “the good guys,” meaning the people we consider on the right side in a battle. Batman’s a good guy; The Joker’s a bad guy. Then people will half-jokingly take that attitude in sports. “The good guys scored six points against the bad guys.”
And then, there’s “Good” meaning “good enough.” Such as, “He’s a good singer,” or “She’s a good football player,” etc. It’s not the same as saying that person’s truly great at that, but that they’re adequate. “He’s no Daniel Day-Lewis of course, but he’s a good actor.”
Speaking of actors, there’s another meaning of “Good” that I’ve seen in some of the old movies Handsome likes to watch. It’s a mixture of ability, coolness, intelligence… all those qualities we really want to think we have (yes, even us dogs). “Is he any good?” a character will say. “I just want to find out if I’m good enough.” Etc. It’s kind of hard to describe, but think of it this way: James Bond is good, really good.
And then there’s another definition. And this one is my favorite. A friend of Handsome’s was arrested by a police officer, as it looked like he’d committed a crime. And after he was released (they found out he hadn’t done it), he talked about what it was like being held by the cop. “He was pretty tough. Had me in handcuffs, was really intimidating. But then while I sat in the car, he offered me some coffee. Even held it so I could drink it. I realized, he was actually a good guy.”
Now what did he mean by “Good?” Of course the officer was on the side of the law; that wasn’t what this guy discovered about him. And it wasn’t quite kindness; the officer was absolutely scaring him, and hurting him a little by chaining his hands up.
I think the quality that made that officer “Good” was something called Empathy. Empathy is that quality where you actually feel something that someone else is going through.
It’s not the same as Pity (where you feel sorry for someone in a kind of distant way, like pitying the victims of the volcano at Pompeii), or Sympathy (where you feel bad that someone’s going through some pain, like when your friend loses a relative).
Empathy is more like when you watch someone suck on a lemon and it makes your mouth pucker. It’s also when you watch a movie and cry because a character’s girlfriend just left him. Or when you hear about a kid whose dog has gone missing, and your heart just drops as you struggle to imagine how that must feel.
Now I might be wrong, but I’m guessing that that police officer saw this scared guy in his car, shivering in the cold, and thought “Hey, even if this guy is a criminal, he’s clearly not dangerous, and I would feel better if I gave him some hot coffee.” That’s Empathy.
We hear all the time about people who do good deeds just for show. And when we learn the truth about how uncaring that person really is, we stop thinking that they’re really good people – even if they’ve done something really nice and useful. No, it’s goodness in the heart that really matters to us. How much someone feels for others. And acts accordingly (If that officer had only felt for the guy, and not given him the coffee, no one would consider him especially good).
Which brings me back to that girl at the park. You see, it wasn’t my not biting her that made me a good dog at that moment. It was my sensing how scared she was and walking away to give her space.
If I’d stayed and sniffed her some more, that doesn’t mean I would have been a bad dog, but it wouldn’t have been as thoughtful, as considerate… as empathetic… as what I eventually did.
And as we go through life, I think that might be something to keep in mind. It’s fine to put a lot of effort into being great, or being the best. I’m all for it. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that maybe the best things we ever do are just simply being Good.
Which was especially important to remember when we got home from the park, and I was all excited, and jumped up on Handsome’s white couch with my muddy feet and he started yelling and kicked me out of the house, calling me “Bad Dog” and worse!!
“Bad Dog?” I guess I was. But I also was able to know that, deep down, I was a Good dog too.