“Live Deliberately” Scholarship Finalist

Anna Dabrowski, Head Editor

Early last fall I applied to many scholarships, one of them was an essay contest sponsored by the Walden Project. The prompt asked for a response to the Henry David Thoreau quote below, and although I did not win I did make it to the finals out of  1200 other students.

“Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” —  Henry David Thoreau to H.G.O. Blake, 27 March 1848

In 750 words or fewer, please respond to the following prompt: Referring to the above quote, what does it mean to aim above morality for you? Why is it important, in the short-term or long-term, to be good for something?

“There is no selfless act,” this long-standing debate rings in my head every time I hold the door for someone, every time I tell someone their shoe is untied, or every time I offer a paltry smile. How could I possibly be benefiting from such a small gesture? I do not assume that the person I held the door for will turn back around and offer me fifty dollars. I could just be abiding by the societal rules I have followed since birth; maybe every act of kindness I have ever committed was an empty gesture. If I can not be “simply good,” what is the proper way to “be good for something”? I assume that Thoreau did not intend for this “something” to be some sort of vain personal glory, as this would defeat the purpose of aiming above morality. Although Thoreau was a famed transcendentalist, an advocate of the environment, and a “tree hugger,” I believe this quote was intended for a different audience: the abolitionists.

“After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.” One of Thoreau’s most notable essays, “Civil Disobedience,” sent shock waves across the United States in 1849. Thoreau advocated for the breaking of unjust laws as a means for change, because he believed that morality had become neutralized over time. As society repeatedly drives us to “sin,” we learn to live immorally in order to propel through life. Thoreau’s writing conveyed to the country that ethical actions would not be enough to abolish the heinous institution of slavery, and it encouraged the abolisionists to take a more forceful approach. 

The reason we must all “aim above morality” is because morality is not a set compass. Morality waives like a mirage when politicians are striking a deal, when we strip children from their parents at the border, when we cut our losses for the “greater good.” When we pretend morality exists, our “good deeds” have no true value. On the contrary, being good for something allows for lasting change. 

For instance, I decided to record myself reading children’s books today. Since we are in a perpetual pandemic, I thought the children in my town’s elementary school would enjoy a virtual storytime. I came across this idea while trying to fulfill my National Honor Society community service requirement. As I scanned the list of approved service activities, I originally decided on crowd research. This involves rifling through thousands of digital pictures and clicking “yes there is a jellyfish in this picture,” or “no there is not.” This task would have been significantly easier than filming a quality storytime video with voice inflections to cater to a young audience. However, I found out very quickly that I did not care about the crowd research. If I were to weigh the two activities on a moral scale they would both be considered “good,” and there would be no way to determine which activity was “better.” Yet, the opportunity to make a positive impact on the mental health of children in my community is one I knew I could not pass up. Today I was good for something, and although the act may seem small, it filled my soul unlike any of the “good” acts I have completed for community service over the years.

If we all walk through our lives as mindless zombies, picking up trash on the side of the road solely to say “at least I did something good this month,” what happens when we are presented with a less passive choice? A racial pandemic is plaguing our country as people of color are being murdered by the police every week. Many Americans with my white privilege have decided to make the “moral” choice of posting a black square on their Instagram pages to show their support. Yet, I believe that it is time we do more than stand idly by on social media while our fellow human beings continue to be lynched under our corrupt police system. Not much has changed since Henry David Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” as white supremacy continues to define America. I trust that Thoreau would have supported the #BlackLivesMatter protests over the summer in the spirit of being “good for something.” If we do not “aim above morality,” systemic racism will continue to poison the place we all call home. It is time the “American dream” becomes a reality.