Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Trying to be good is not helpful

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All those people wanting us to be more virtuous should realise how pointless their undertaking is.

There's simply no point in dusting the Lego Death Star. Thanks, Quentin Crisp. Photo / Supplied
There's simply no point in dusting the Lego Death Star. Thanks, Quentin Crisp. Photo / Supplied

There is an almost Zen-like pleasure, or should that be a Jedi-like pleasure, in assembling a Lego Death Star. It has 3800 pieces in four sections and a 300-page manual. You can just lose yourself in the nit-pickery of finding the right pieces.

After it is made, inevitably it will fall apart and be impossible to put back together because the dog ate a vital piece or I vacuumed it up in a rare bout of housework. (Joan Rivers on housework: "You make the beds, you do the dishes, and then six months later you have to do it all over again.")

Like constructing Lego, most things return to chaos. But perhaps it is best we are unaware of this and keep on trying. I wonder whether the people who are employed in the massive mission of making us all be more virtuous realise how pointless their undertaking is.

You know the ones I mean: there seem to be a lot more of them these days as trying to improve the populace seems to have become a core task of government.

This week they are trying to get cigarettes put into plain packets so people won't smoke, and to stop the proliferation of pokie machines so people won't gamble. There are also the enterprises of trying to stop drinking, saturated fat and many other evils. It seems hard to argue against such well-meaning campaigns.

But I wonder whether they are destructive rather than helpful. Oh, they certainly feel good for the bossy instigators, who feel deliriously virtuous in their crusade to improve the world. But it's not so helpful for the rest of us.

The sense that you are unsatisfactory and must work hard to overcome your intrinsic badness leads to seeing the world in terms of virtues and vices; as clean/dirty, kind/cruel, hardworking/lazy or good/evil. Framing the world in these binary terms is a surefire way to feel a miserable failure. You can never be good enough. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe says this is why people get depressed: they would rather be good than be happy.

The people who take great pride in their goodness and obligations become dangerous to other people. Rowe could be talking about the health nazis: "While they claim to be sensitive and caring, in their blindness and ignorance they inflict pain on others and because they believe they know what is best for others they do what they can to prevent other people becoming independent adults."

When you are engaged in a continuous battle to be good you subscribe to the belief that if you are good "they" (the Government, society, the medical profession, God, whatever) will protect you and make your life secure. When no matter how hard you try to be good, bad things happen and you discover "they" are incompetent at protecting you, you get very angry, says Rowe. "How dare the Government be so stupid!" "How dare the medical profession be so ignorant!" We all want to stick to the belief that if we are good, someone, somewhere, will look after us. The idea of no "Just World" and having to take responsibility and look after yourself is terrifying. But it is reality.

I am much happier now I have stopped trying to be good. I have reconciled myself with my general wobbly-thighed, frizzy haired, idle feebleness. Perversely, the times I have succeeded in doing anything resembling developing self-discipline - stopping eating sausage rolls for morning tea, for example - have only been when I have stopped thinking about it as a good or bad thing and thought I might change my behaviour just a smidgen anyway.

Now I am no longer haranguing myself for my many shortcomings, including my slovenly domestic standards. As Quentin Crisp said, "There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse." No point dusting the Death Star.

- NZ Herald

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