Growing up, my parents always stressed that they wanted me and my siblings to grow up to be good people. My dad would find relatable ways to get this message across at our level, depending on age and understanding of the World.
When I was in high school and would have friends over, my dad would ask our guest questions (yes, we actually had many dinners together as a family, and every Friday night we had dinner together for Shabbat, even if we had friends over. And yes, this was very impactful – I highly recommend family dinner time to anyone who’s on the fence). Part of the reason for the questions is that we come from a questioning family – my grandmother may her memory be a blessing, would shower us with questions every time that we saw her, and it stuck with us through the generations. But mostly, my dad was trying to figure out who we were spending time with in our lives, and maybe even trying to inspire them through asking questions that they may have not yet asked themselves, and getting them to think about these topics.
Here’s an example: If my dad found out that the guest had a family pet dog or cat, he would ask: “Let’s say that you were going on a hike with your dog, and he took off and jumped into the river to save a drowning man. You run to the river bank and see that your dog is also in a position to drown. You have the ability to save only one in time, either the man or the dog. Which do you choose?”
If the friend would answer their own pet, my dad would then ask them the same question, but with a random dog or the man, and if they would still answer dog, my dad would go down a list of animals until rat. Only one friend answered that they would still prefer to save a rat over a random human… my dad wasn’t too fond of that one.
For the purpose of this article I don’t want to focus on the answers, but I’ll give just a two interesting data points:
1. More than 50% said their own pet.
2. A MUCH higher percentage of my sisters friends (girls) would answer animals if my dad would ask to save a random ‘man’, but if asked random ‘person’ then it was about same. When asked why, usually the girls would say that the man is alone by the river, how do they know he isn’t a rapist?
After each time asking the friend, in private my dad would go through with each of us (me and my siblings) once again that we believe that the value of a human being – any human being, is more than that of an animal, even one as beloved as our own pets.
As a little kid, the go-to question my dad would ask our friends was: “When you grow up, if you could choose only one, which would you rather be: Good, Rich, or Happy? Would you rather be a good person, a rich person, or a happy person?”
Almost everyone said rich. A few would say happy. No one said good. Ever.
My dad would review with us afterwords that the correct answer is to be a good person. That he wants us to grow up to be good people. That money and happiness are less important than the types of people we become.
These types of lessons are some of the most powerful and impactful memories of my childhood. In fact, almost all of what I have taken from my upbringing have been the lessons and morals that my parents gave me. I remember a lot of the fun times that I had, and that overall I had a ‘good’ childhood from a loving family (and that is a VERY strong and critical base) but what I took most of all from childhood are the values that my parents wanted to instill in me.
This leads me to a current day question that I have myself: “What are the most important things I want to give to my kids as a parent? How do I do my job as a parent in the most impactful ways for my kids?”
Of course I want them to grow up in a loving family, a warm household, where they can explore their individuality within a sturdy framework so they can ultimately be able to freely choose to uphold the values that I want for them. But, having given them that base (which is not easy – it takes a ton of work just to get there!), how do I make sure the message I so desperately want them to hear gets through in the right way?
As I grew up a lot of the ‘turbulence’ in my life was a clash of modern world and culture vs. being a ‘good’ person. Part of the reason is that I didn’t really know what being a good person was. I had some specific examples, but it was not an all encompassing system. This led me to more questions:
What does it mean to be a good person? Does it mean the same for everyone? Is good objective or subjective? If there is one ultimate definition of good, then why are there so many differences in the world, and differences of opinion? If there isn’t one ultimate definition of good, and being good is just subjective, then why is it important? How can it have any value at all?
Today, thinking of the questions of the pet and human, and the good, rich, and happy, my relation to them has shifted. When I think of what it means to be a good person, a rich person, and a happy person, I understand that they are all interconnected and in reality we can’t be just one. There is no such thing as only happy or only good. To me, what is comes from a deeper place, one that requires thought and understanding, and questioning, lots of questioning!
And maybe that’s what my dad was trying to do as well, get me to question, get me to think. To catch on to the values and what is important to him, but to show me the path to get there on my own. To ask myself: ‘What is it that I really want? What is Happy? What is Rich? What is good?”
May we all be blessed with asking the most appropriate questions in our lives, questions that lead to new pathways of thought, to be blessed with discovering new aspects of ourselves and our lives. May we merit to live our lives as Good people, rich people, and happy people.
Perhaps in an upcoming article I can start to dive a bit deeper into what I’ve discovered on the topic of good. But for now, this seems like a good place to stop.