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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Daryl Hall, Pope John Paul II, and What it Takes to Be Good

Last weekend, when I first heard (erroneously, as it turned out) that the Pope had died, I was reading the April 2005 Mojo magazine. Oddly, the bit I was reading was an interview with Daryl Hall, the taller and paler of the Hall & Oates duo. It was mostly a useless way to spend a few minutes, but the last question stuck with me purely because it raised a question in my mind that stayed with me over the weekend: what does it take to be a good person?

The interview, a self-portrait, is a series of sentences that the artist is asked to complete. Things like “my most treasured possession is...” and “when we die...” The final sentence of the bunch was, I’d like to be remembered...

...For my work, but also as a good person. I’ve never consciously done anything to fuck with anybody else.

It intrigued me that someone would think that a lack of action might warrant being called a good person (never mind the question of whether “Maneater” is evidence that he did consciously do something to make the rest of our lives a little bit worse). In that worldview, being good is a passive thing--simply avoiding bad things is good enough. In my worldview, being good is an active thing, not something that could be achieved by staying removed from the fray.

Being good requires wading in, making choices, and actively trying to make the world around you better. For that matter, belief, passion, and intent are only part of the process, too; the results have to be as positive as the intents. History is littered with people who believed, passionately, that they knew how to solve the world’s problems, and brought only misery and pain.

The reason this struck me is the stark contrast that Daryl Hall’s words held with my view of the world and the people that I respect. A person like Pope John Paul II wasn’t a spectator in life, doing his best to avoid bad and hoping that people would remember him as a “good” man. I wouldn’t speculate as to what he thought, or hoped, his legacy would be, but our memories of him will be defined by the moral stands that he took. His role in the world--his influence--was a thing built on vocal opposition to tyrants and his own belief in the sanctity of life. He was a thoughtful, active, morally courageous man who rarely was silent on any of the important issues of the last two decades.

That isn’t to say that I agreed with everything that he said or wrote or believed, but to say that if I remember him as an exemplary man and an exemplary world leader, it would be for those things in his life that he did and not the things that he didn’t do.

If anyone is remembered as a good person, it isn’t for staying out of the tough issues, sneeringly above it all, or simply too weak to stake out a position. If we care about our own legacies, then our guide should be something a little more exertive. In fact, as much as the word has taken on some unsavory characteristics in the mouths and intentions of people like Mark Morford, being admirable is inherently progressive: it’s a choice that is made to move toward a better world.

Daryl Hall? Well, he did sing “Sara Smile,” and that was pretty cool, I guess…

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