The word “better” is loaded with emotion. We implore people to “feel better” when they are sick. We use the term to assess skills and rank one another as in, “she’s a better writer than I am.” Alternatively, we refer to it as a marker for improvement, like the classic mantra used in hypnosis, “every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”
I recall a Super Soul Sunday episode where Oprah was speaking with author Dani Shapiro. I found Dani’s somewhat quiet, gentle presence comforting, and when she humbly said, “I just want to do and be better,” I was captivated. That’s all I really want too.
What is “Better”?
In reflecting on this goal I can’t help but wonder – What exactly is “better”? Like so many relative terms, it requires a context to have meaning. Am I better today than I was yesterday, last year, or prior to the pandemic that caused me to focus so much energy on my personal growth?
I believe I am in fact getting better daily, but I can’t ever be sure. I see myself moving forward intellectually, but sometimes feel like I have taken several steps back physically, spiritually, or emotionally. It’s a bit like dancing the Cha-Cha. Two steps forward, two steps back, never actually getting anywhere.
I love Maya Angelou. I think she was a brilliant, inspiring, luminous woman. I have clung to her words as meaningful advice. Unfortunately, one of her most famous sentiments is often misquoted as, “When you know better, you do better.”
A statement with which I can’t agree. As someone who is often in self-help or educational communities, I have been around a great many people who know better. I have met and rubbed elbows with people who are experts and gurus in health. Their professional lives focus on the “knowing” part of being better as they teach others about wellness.
Don’t Forget About the Doing
These “experts” on health and spirituality don’t necessarily do better than the average person. Many make shocking amounts of money while preaching the importance of living in balance or being of service. They stress letting go of ego, while promoting themselves incessantly. There are health professionals who smoke and eat junk food all day long while telling others not to do the same. Religious leaders are often caught in sordid sex scandals. This “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy makes it very clear to me that knowing how to be better and actually doing better are two very different things.
There is a word for not practicing what you preach. We know it as “hypocrisy.” The counter to that situation comes from another “h” word – “honesty.” I try very hard to be honest with myself. I accept and acknowledge that even though I am a highly educated dietitian, who knows all the ins and outs of healthy eating, I don’t eat well 100% of the time. I am human after all, and I just happen to love sweets. Do I suggest others limit their sugar intake? Of course, that is what all the latest research says. Do I follow that advice as much as I can? Absolutely! Do I admit openly that I am flawed and don’t always make the best choices. Yes, an embarrassing amount of time I do make that admission. I often feel alone in doing so.
Show Don’t Tell
There seems to be a mesmerizing power behind those who speak with unwavering authority or make loud, impassioned demands on others. They get a whole lot of attention. But, I find that the most effective healers and teachers in my life have always been those whose actions speak louder than their words. They make me want to be a better person by showing me the way.
Why Is Being Good So Difficult?
“The best is the enemy of good.” ― Voltaire
Perhaps, we get too fixated on the “best,” which causes us to overlook that which is good. I know my tendency is to lean in that direction.
It’s not that I am seeking perfection. I know that is unattainable. What I truly crave is authenticity. I don’t want to pretend I am something I am not! And, I certainly don’t want to spend time with people who can’t admit to their very human shortcomings. Being “good” is much harder when you are surrounded by people who aren’t putting in that same effort.
I have given far too many people a pass believing they were doing their best, when really they were living lives of manipulation and dishonesty. I now recognize that being inauthentic is the true enemy of improvement. We must first acknowledge our faults if we ever want to conquer them.
A Gentler Approach to “Better”
What Maya Angelou actually said is, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This is a far more palatable message in my opinion. It doesn’t make a broad sweeping assumption about the power of knowledge. Instead, it offers up a simple suggestion for growth.
This quote from Brené Brown offers an even gentler perspective:
“All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”
Ah, good old judgement, you are always a challenge for me! By letting go of my judgements I can just accept people for who they are. I don’t have to like their choices, but I do have to accept them as fact. As my best friend, Chelle, reminds me, “It’s about the choosing to do better, not about the ability to do so.” Some people simply can’t or won’t make the difficult choice. I’ve learned to recognize that those are not my people.
Start with Good
On the continuum of good –> better –> best, most of us are just working on trying to be good. I know I am not at my best most of the time. That is the very nature of a superlative like “best.” It is rare and exceptional, the highest pinnacle of achievement. For anyone to think they are their best consistently feels false and egotistical to me.
I will stick to humbly trying to be better and do better every day. That is certainly hard enough; like doing the Cha-Cha without stepping on my own feet.
[I started writing this in August of 2014, a few weeks before my Dad passed. I can only assume that my mind was consumed by other thoughts in the time that followed, leaving these musings to linger. Perhaps that was for the best, as my view has changed quite a bit in the past 7 1/2 years. Today (4/4) happens to be Maya Angelou’s birthday, a fitting time to share her powerful words.]
What do you think? Do you always do your best? Do you think most people are doing the same?
Michelle Gibeault Traub is a health writer, compassionate coach, and the author of Online Dating for Sensitive Women. Her mission is to help women be their best in body, mind & spirit.
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