The Good Ones
I was walking out of Publix the other day, my arms full of groceries, my head tilted down as I looked at the pavement, deep in thought, when I heard someone call my name.
“Mr. Bornstein,” a woman said. “Can you stop and talk?”
I recognized her immediately, a member of my congregation and one of my mother’s peers. She spoke with the vestiges of a long-ago foreign accent, with all the seriousness and focus of someone intent on making an important point.
“Mr. Bornstein,” she began. “I was just thinking about your mother.” For those of you who don’t know, my mother passed away a little more than a year ago. “I still remember her with such fondness. She was a great lady. Very intelligent, and always so kind to me. We had many long, wonderful conversations. She was such a good person. I just wanted you to know that she was on my mind.”
“Thank you,” I responded. “That’s very kind of you to say.”
She went on. “And your wife! So warm and generous. She is so kind. She always pays attention, and talks to me, and is such a good person. You...” Here she paused and looked hard at me. “You not so good.”
I was, you can imagine, taken aback. Me not so good? I’m not a good person? What did she mean?
“But I just wanted you to know that I was thinking of your mother, and your wife too. Have a good day.” And with that she walked into the grocery store and left me, somewhat stunned, standing alone in the parking lot.
I couldn’t get our brief, if one-sided conversation out of my mind. I AM a good person, I asserted silently to myself. I am a good husband, a good father, a good friend. I do my best to do no harm. I’m honest, reliable, occasionally funny, a damn fine writer, the kind of guy you want to go out with and have a beer. Why, if there were a way to be a Man Scout (as opposed to a Boy Scout) I’d be first in line. What had I done in the past to be “not so much a good person?”
Perhaps she was referring to some of my columns, in which I’d been less than completely supportive of the State of Israel, or criticized some of our local agencies. Maybe she’d been offended by my more tongue in cheek articles about my grandfather or my mother. Or could it be that I just hadn’t been as nice, as kind, paid the type of attention to her that my mother and wife had, which, if you knew my mother or know my wife, is a virtually impossible peak for a man to climb. Even a hopefully good man like me.
And then, later in the day, as the conversation churned internally, as I tried to wrap my arms around my less than goodness, another thought pierced my shallow veil. A deeper thought. Maybe a better thought. What does it mean to be good, to be one of the good ones. I’ve pondered this ever since I left the Publix parking lot, climbed into my car, drove home, and unloaded my groceries.
Being good, I think, can’t be about having contrary, or even critical opinions, or voicing them out loud. While it’s my job to do that as a columnist, even if I weren’t it would be all right. As Jews we’re encouraged to speak our minds, to think critically and search for answers and interpretations and paths that might not be so obvious, might actually venture into the realm of critical and off-putting. So scratch my columns off the list. Being good (or its corollary) has nothing to do with what I write.
Unless, of course, the words are mean spirited, hateful, hurtful, prejudiced, angry for the sake of being angry. Even my lighter pieces, I hope, have not been written to wound or offend. I’ve always taken care to take care of my subjects. So take that off as well.
What I’m left with, and where I can be a better person, is what my mother did, and my wife does all the time. They engage(d). My mother fully enjoyed every moment she spent with others. My wife fully commits herself to paying attention to whomever she’s with. She makes others feel special, primary, important. And this, perhaps, is the great lesson I was accidentally taught that day in the Publix parking lot. Being good isn’t about me. It’s always about everyone else, and how I am with them.
And that’s the good word.
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