What does it mean to “be good”?
There is a quote that has always sat very firmly in my gut from Kristi Coulter’s book Nothing Good Can Come from This that reads:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to regret or repent.
You do not have to say what you are grateful for.
You just have to not drink. Tonight.
You can hate it, as long as you do it.
You can close your eyes in the summer twilight, chocolate still coating your teeth. Angry and scared. Levelled, so you can rise again.
I read it when I was about a year and a half sober and just over two years drug free. At the time, I wasn’t really sure what I was feeling when I read it or why my entire body felt tight. It was like seeing something you weren’t meant to see, like coming across a gift someone had hidden for you, or seeing a text message that wasn’t meant for your eyes. As I read it now, I remember early pressures of being "good”, not just as in well mannered or decent but as in impressive, accomplished and worth bragging about. The type of good that was for the benefit of other people and not for me - namely, my mother. I remembered how that type of good felt entirely impossible and on the other hand, it was all I wanted, creating a longing that might never leave.
In newer days that are not my childhood and more like the early days of sobriety, I wanted to be “good” more than I wanted to be sober and because I associated being good with being sober, it was often enough to keep me from saying “fuck it” and having a wine with dinner. I couldn’t really process that I didn’t have to be good to be sober. Was sober not good? Was there another way of becoming good? Can I buy it? Could I snort it? Back then, I hadn’t done a lot of sobriety work. I stopped drinking, removed myself from literally all drinking type events or situations, isolated myself, and then expected everything to be magically fine. But now that the numbness of drugs and alcohol had been lifted, there is was... the longing.
The truth is, I had been trying to be "good" for a really long time. My mother used to tell a story that I was a child you only ever had to scold once. I would never do the bad thing again. I was a “good” child. I wanted to be a good teen, good twenty something, good adult. I think it was this fixation that drove me to cope using substances in the first place. I numbed my need to be good and cloaked my life in a haze of falsity and grander. I pretended because the fear of not being good was too much to live with. It was a burden I didn't ask for and a pressure I could not handle. In sobriety, I just switched it up, took a full 180 and substituted substances for self help books, Instagram sobriety accounts, and psychoeducation. I was looking for the good somewhere else. I could be "good" at this. And trust me, It hasn’t escaped me that even the book I was reading at the time was trying to tell me that nothing good will come from any of this…even if that wasn’t the author’s intention.
It didn’t work. I never became “good”. I probably won’t. I was never going to be good enough as a child for those who did not love me as I was, I was never going to be good as a young adult while living in a house of mirrors and lies, and I was never going to be a good sober person either. Instead, I create new definitions for what I consider good each day, keeping it constantly in flux, as it should be.
I later realized that Kristi’s chapter, Permissions, where the above excerpt is taken from is based off a poem by Mary Oliver entitled Wild Geese. When I returned to the original poem, I read it slowly. As I read it I felt free because I did not have to be good, I did not have to repent, my goodness was always just me, in the world, within the family of things, loving what I love.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.