It was some time ago that I heard a statement that has stayed with me. I was coming back from a day trip to Madrid. When I got home there was a documentary on TV about the history of the ecologist movement. It hooked me. I did not know much about the subject and I realized that those who were behind it, before it became a fashion thing, were people with principles. One of them said in an interview: “I’m not interested in dying having been good, I’m interested in dying having done something good”.
And I could not agree more.
Being good and doing good are two very different things. Like being a revolutionary and acting out a revolution; it is not the same. Being good is an abstraction, an idea about yourself or others. Doing good is an action, towards yourself or others.
Being good implies a moral judgment; you’re judging the inner quality of a person. Doing good is a factual judgement; you’re judging the actions. Being good is a superficial and materialistic approach: it means judging the inner quality of someone by the appearance of things. Doing good is taking a phenomenological approach: you’re judging the actions, not the person.
It is no wonder that in the current mode of things in which we live we are very busy trying to be good but perhaps not that much trying to do good. True goodness, which can only be manifested and known by the actions, emerges from a place deep within the human soul. But today I do not have a soul (or a spirit, or consciousness, or anything else we might call it), that is what I have been told: it is merely the side effect of brain activity. You might not believe this (neither do I) but the consequences of that proposition are so deep within the fabric of society that many times we act on it without consciously knowing it.
That we want to ‘be good’ means that we want to ‘be seen as good’. The definition of what that ‘good’ entails is another topic, but each of us wants to be a good something (even if it is good at being bad). Immediate satisfaction dictates that taking the long route towards that is not really an option and since there’s nothing hidden behind what can be seen, what appears to be something it must be that thing.
That we ‘want to do good’ means that we do not care about how we are seen, we are not doing the good action because it will look like we are good but because our soul is inclined towards meanings and not appearances. That means that ultimately the soul is not turned towards itself, but towards its Creator, because in the last instance the soul is also an appearance. This necessitates the acceptance of the Unseen as a reality in our lives.
That is the ultimate difference between being good and doing good. Someone that does not accept the reality of the Unseen, i.e. his own soul as a separate entity from his body but inextricably linked during this life, can only ‘be good’. He might even act out being good and do good actions, but the absence of meaning means that he is that way because he thinks he should be good. Ideas are appearances of things, so he will still be concerned about appearances. Perhaps that is part of the meaning of what Allah says in the Quran:
The actions of such people come to nothing in this world or the Next World. They are the lost. (9:69)
Someone that accepts the reality of the Unseen ultimately has to acknowledge that his actions are not his, so he will turn towards meaning and not appearances.
They give food, despite their love for it, to the poor and orphans and captives: We feed you only out of desire for the Face of Allah. We do not want any repayment from you or any thanks. (76:8-9)
That means that he will not be concerned about appearing to be good because he will be busy acting good: putting right what is misplaced or unbalanced. The Quran mentions the famous story of Prophet Musa and Khidr, may His peace be upon them both, in which Khidr carries out a series of actions that under all judgements would be considered evil for their appearance, and Musa rightly recriminates him for it. But when Khidr explains to him the meaning behind those actions Prophet Musa has to take back his judgment, because Allah says about Khidr:
A slave of Ours whom We had granted mercy from Us and whom We had also given knowledge direct from Us. (18:65)
We, or at least I, do not have that direct knowledge. I do not know the Unseen but I’m sure about its existence: to deny it would mean to deny the very essence of what makes me who I am, or what makes a human being a human being. I cannot act out based upon a knowledge that I do not have, that is why I must act upon what I know and trust, which knows the Unseen. And actions are the manifestation of belief:
But those who have iman and do right actions. (98:7)
If we were to do that we would be acting out for the meaning and not the appearance. That is the only true goodness since the appearance of things changes constantly and so it does the appearance of what the definition of good is, and perhaps it has never done it more rapidly than today.