A few weeks back I read a New York Times op-ed piece titled “I Don’t Need to Be a ‘Good Person.’ Neither Do You.”* While I agreed with some of the content of the article (it was about not following all social norms), the title itself set me off. There was a time when I assumed people instinctively knew how to be good, leaned toward always trying to do the right thing, but now I am not so sure. We certainly don’t need newspaper columnists suggesting we be otherwise.
I read the bothersome editorial while at my local nature center. The center has a small lounge open to the public. Its staff keeps fresh coffee brewing, so I go there a couple mornings each week to write and read the news. If I go early enough, I usually have the place to myself, but on this particular morning there were four young adults already sitting at tables when I walked in. They all wore the same Wisconsin Conservation Corps t-shirts, so I asked them what they were doing. It turned out that they were Americorps volunteers who had just finished summer appointments and were filling out final evaluations.
They told me that each of them had been a leader of one of WisCorps’ local work crews. Local crews, unlike the organization’s roving crews, are not college-aged adults who travel the entire state putting in hiking trails and repairing damaged natural areas. Local crews never leave town, and all of the workers other than the leaders are high school students. The work is basically whatever needs to be done in the community. One day they might weed the food shelter’s vegetable garden, and the next they might clean rain gutters on the homes of some of the city’s elderly residents. The purpose of the work is as much to develop the character of the workers as it is to complete worthwhile projects. In short, the four young adults in the nature center lounge had just spent the summer serving as role models for teenagers and, in the process, earned about half of what they would have made working the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant. No one needed to tell them to be good people, and no one needed to tell them to do good work.
Are good acts of work related to age? Are they linked to the absence of the obligations we eventually put on ourselves? When I was the same age as the Americorps workers, I also did good work for less than minimum wage. Then over time, I acquired student loans, a mortgage, and a daughter who relied upon me. I don’t think I sold out by taking a job at a university, but my reasons for working definitely changed. There is a difference between refusing to sell out for a paycheck and intentionally seeking honorable work. It does seem that the some of the jobs I most admire come with little or no pay. My two favorite Berrys, Thomas and Wendell, both have something to say about that.**
My task that morning, however, was not to turn an encounter with Americorps workers into a referendum of my own life. It was to appreciate the wonderful things being done by many of the young people around me. They remind me that it isn’t that hard to be good.
* Found at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/25/opinion/desires-good-person.html
** Berry, T. 2000.The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York: Crown Publishing. Also Berry, W. 1986, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books