Chloe Sikes '10 Baccalaureate Remarks
A while back, I remember speaking with an acquaintance about post-graduation plans. She mentioned her friend, searching for real jobs - you know the ones with lawyers, big, evil corporations, McDonald’s, ones that pay money – and how she couldn’t believe that someone with a liberal arts education was looking to enter the workforce and didn’t want to just do some good in the world first. This struck me. There seemed to be an assumption that a job, one of those coveted things that some people work hard to find, but usually just discover by talking to the right person in a bar, would never live up to the idea of doing good.
But now, given the various events over the past three weeks, I consider this question in a new light: everything is in flux. The unpredictable happens all the time in unimaginable ways, be they tragic or miraculous. Those closest to me have been some of the ones encountering these events head on, and no matter what side of a conversation any of us has taken, we have all been dealing with fear, injustice, unfairness, and uncertainty. In light of all this, I have been asking myself, “what is doing good?” The phrase is used so flippantly here, implying there’s a common understanding of what doing good means, and why this shared notion is deemed more respectable than other forms of action. But judgments based on what is good and what is worthless will make life much harder and more difficult to understand and enjoy. Here at Grinnell, our idea of doing good is presumed to be serving, sharing, contributing what you have to someone who presumably does not have whatever that may be. But I’ve come to understand that “good” is so relative and changing; “good” is in flux, “good” is the now, the long term; it can be the socially just and the selfish, the general and the directed, the fleetingly insignificant, and the impactful.
For so long, our job has been to be students. We have focused on the future, our futures, and how to achieve change through intellectual, academic discourse, rather than how to value the possibility of the moment. We’ve been caught up in making distinctions and dichotomies, reevaluating the significance of our actions. But in asking the question, “what is doing good?” which implicitly creates the opposing idea of not doing good, it comes at a cost: instead of forcing ourselves to understand the multiple positions we hold in relation to so many others, and how we do do good every day, we limit our understanding of what good is. We don’t think about our hours working in the Dining Hall, serving people food; the brief conversations we have with acquaintances that may have lasting impacts; the time we take for ourselves, which seems like a selfish waste at the time, but which supports everything else we decide to do. But even if we’ve identified what doing good is here at Grinnell, how do we identify the good, what to uphold, what to fight for, in a different place? Is it the same?
I think without understanding the many forms of doing good, we have come to undervalue the things that we and those around us do each day. We need to expand our notions of doing good to spaces outside of direct service or academia. Working for an hourly wage, taking time for yourself to figure out how to utilize what you’ve learned here in the most fulfilling way. Even, and, I hate to say it, selling insurance, these are equally, if not, in some ways, more meaningful, than officially ordained spaces for doing good. It’s a frightening prospect that, in our educational endeavors, we have forgotten or taken for granted what it takes to allow us the opportunity to pose questions such as these. The good that comes from people we do not know, have not met, and who do not receive credit or even know that they have helped us along. What I struggle with is the thought that we make the strict division between charitable and dutiful pursuits as respectively good and bad, and disregard what we do not consider “doing good,” like this. This way of thinking severely limits our experiences, our relationships, and the ways we value our actions. Like the conversation I had with that acquaintance, the common sentiment here is that only those official spaces of service are considered worthy and able of doing good. And anything else might be cast out as ordinary, simple, selfish. But this viewpoint does not acknowledge the fundamental realization I have had at Grinnell: though it sounds trite, everyone and everything is connected- structurally, emotionally, mentally. At any other time, this may have seemed entirely obvious, but I think, at least on this campus, it’s fully recognized now.
Distinguishing the good that people contribute to a community based on the commonly held ideal of what is good seems like such a disrespect to those who contribute in different capacities, those who advise us, clean after us, feed us, and guide us in indirect ways. Sometimes even being selfish can be doing good. Only acting for ourselves in order to build the person we want to be, strengthen our mental health, enhance our social relationships. All these contribute to the everyday good that can be achieved in simply being thoughtful, generous, and patient. Our distinctions between what is worthy of doing and what is deemed “selling out” complicate our understandings of our many roles in the world, and limit our possibilities of good.
So I pose the question again, “what is doing good?” It clearly expands far being service work in a non-profit, a fellowship, or higher education, though all of these things clearly are good. I mean, come on, anyone here knows I run around with a pretty socially active crowd, and I myself am signed up for AmeriCorps next year. But doing good really involves understanding where you stand in relation to what, and how to act in the most fulfilling way. As for every situation, every location, and every relationship that we will have, I cannot come up with an appropriate response to this question, and will not claim to have a solid grasp on my own role in relation to all these aspects of life. What I do think is that Grinnell provides us with the ability to search for, identify, and assess the most and best we can do in a given moment, and act accordingly, even if this just means figuring out where we are needed and what we need. At the very least, Grinnell has taught us the sense of personal responsibility to ask these questions in the first place. When you reflect on the Grinnell virtue of doing good, don’t let that be limited to organized forms of justice, outreach, nonprofit, and service work, and don’t disregard the seemingly unremarkable as worthless. Realize your own capacities, of which you have many, and those of others, and recognize the frivolity of narrowly categorizing what doing good means. Hopefully this can strengthen our ability to teach, learn, and most of all, live in the good of the moment, which I think is ultimately far more important than the future.