Disclaimer: spoilers ahead!!
What does it mean to be a good person? What does one need to do to be considered good? There isn’t a simple definition or a single answer and that’s exactly what NBC’s The Good Place tried to tell us over the show’s four seasons, which concluded in January.
The Good Place follows four humans as they navigate their way through the afterlife with the help of a demon named Michael (Ted Danson) and an omniscient robot-like assistant named Janet (D’Arcy Carden). The group of six bond in their common goal of saving themselves from eternity in the Bad Place and attempting to correct the flawed system that determines where humans go in the afterlife. In their attempt to correct this system, they must contemplate what it takes for someone to be considered good.
The open-ended nature of that question reminds me of a quote from author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman. When author and scholar Gil Bailie sought Thurman’s advice on what needed to be done in the world, Thurman replied: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Doing something “good” on autopilot is not the answer. To truly contribute good things in this world, we need to be fully engaged with what we are doing and use our minds and hearts. The season two finale of The Good Place provides a great example of this when Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) gets a second chance on Earth.
Eleanor and the three other humans are sent back to Earth as part of an experiment to see if they can each earn a spot in the Good Place. With no memory of the afterlife, each human begins the experiment at the moment just before they die but Michael, the otherworldly demon, saves their lives. Eleanor’s life is saved while she is yet again ridiculing the clean energy canvasser in front of her grocery store. Shaken by this near-death experience, Eleanor decides to become a better person. She turns to the same canvasser for guidance because he represents what it means to be good to Eleanor. Following his path, Eleanor joins the clean energy organization and becomes a canvasser herself.
The adrenaline of her near-death experience fuels Eleanor as she begins her new life as a “good” person. Yet when the adrenaline wears off and this change becomes more difficult to sustain, Eleanor loses motivation and gives up. Understandable. Trying to better oneself is hard work, especially when the change happens so drastically. However, the real issue is that this version of being a good person isn’t the right fit for Eleanor. The goal of becoming a better person isn’t enough to sustain her motivation through the inevitable challenges of this kind of work. So what would be enough? The right fit. Something that makes her come alive. Something that moves her, that propels her to be actively engaged, that fuels her to continue to make conscious and consistent effort.
Fortunately for Eleanor, she has Michael and Janet looking out for her. When Eleanor gives up, Michael goes to see her on Earth and gives her the hints she needs to find her way to the work of ethics and moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). She watches the entire three-hour video of Chidi’s lecture on what we owe to each other with such intense focus it’s clear a spark has been lit within her.
Passion is a word that is possibly overused, but when it’s real, it captures you. It’s something you can’t get rid of and you cannot ignore. From what The Good Place has shown of Eleanor’s prior life on Earth, it seems possible that she lived a life without passion. Not necessarily that she didn’t find hers or know what it was, but that she didn’t engage with it. Ironically, Eleanor came alive after she died. Apparently it is never too late to find your passion. Problem solving, intellectual discussion, stepping up to serve as a leader: these are the things that excite Eleanor in the afterlife. Maybe these are things she felt insecure about on Earth, but there is no time for insecurity in the afterlife of The Good Place. It’s do or die. Well, it’s do or eternal damnation. Either way, the stakes are too high, and the time is too limited. These intense circumstances push Eleanor towards her passion, which keeps her engaged in the process of becoming good. However, Eleanor’s connection with her friends is an equally important source of motivation.
In the series finale, Eleanor recognizes who she could have become if she had never met Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Jason (Manny Jacinto), Chidi, Michael, and Janet. She visits Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe) in the Medium Place, a mediocre afterlife created specifically for Mindy. Eleanor sees herself in Mindy, a lone wolf who claims to be content with her afterlife existence as the only human in the Medium Place. Yet Eleanor is able to convince Mindy to take the test that could let her into the Good Place. Mindy isn’t convinced to take the test because she thinks she should become a better person. Mindy is convinced because someone took the time to understand her, connect with her, and care about her.
Like Howard Thurman, The Good Place doesn’t tell us what we should think. It tells us to think. It implores us to think more deeply about our definitions. It reminds us of the power in reaching out. Each person has their own blend of factors that makes them good. So what’s your blend? What makes you come alive? The beauty of having more than one definition of good is that so many different kinds of good exist in this world. While the possibilities are vast, they all likely involve caring deeply and connecting with others. As we learned from Eleanor, it’s never too late to explore and discover what makes us come alive. When we find that, the people who make us feel alive are usually not too far off.