2020-2021 Live Deliberately Essay Contest
Samuel Cui, 14
Winner, 14-16 Age Group
And what is in the word morality? When I asked my friends and family what it meant to be moral, I was met with a myriad of answers: helping your parents around the house, donating blood to the Red Cross, volunteering at the local animal shelter. Everyone, it seems, has an idea of what it means to be moral. After all, from a young age, we are taught the scripts that this word prescribes — it has specific parameters. This, however, is why Henry David Thoreau rallies against it.
In Henry David Thoreau’s mind, morality is a low bar because it is defined by society and, consequently, is limited by the imagination of the modern world. Looking to the recent past, this is evident. Go back a decade and you will find some who claim sexual conversion therapy is moral. Go back five more decades and you will find those who apply that label to segregation. While today we recognize the horrors of both sexual conversion therapy and segregation, I am certain there are present-day analogues; there is so much that we have yet to fully understand — social justice, machine learning, ourselves. It is impossible for even the most informed and resourceful actors of the modern world to fully understand and define our code ethics. This is why, according to Thoreau, it is not sufficient to abide by a piecemeal set of “oughts.”
A better alternative, Thoreau suggests, is “goodness” because it does not exist solely within the confines of social and legal strictures. Instead, it comes from the self and one’s own values and beliefs. To be good, to be good for something, now this asks us to rely on our own instincts; it is intentional, not passive. To be good compels us to dig deep and take a good, long look within ourselves. It asks us to ask ourselves hard questions about our faults, misperceptions, and biases — to escape the crisp, dictionary-perfect definition of morality we have been handed rather than swallowing it whole.
In my own life, goodness has meant learning to stand up for not only myself, but those who look like me. As a Chinese-American, I have been on the wrong side of a punch-line more times than I can remember. Still, for a long time, I said nothing. The reason for this is that, in my life, morality had been conceptualized as a function of stoicism and patience. When others laughed at me, I was taught to turn the other cheeks. This, they said, is what it meant to be the better person. Today, I understand that my community recast silence as a virtue — as a moral to aim for — in order to mask brutal truths. After all, when your existence alone is an invitation to conflict, silence, passivity, and apologism are more than coping mechanisms — they are tools of survival.
Now, I speak out — I try do the right thing even when it is not the easy thing to do. Galvanized by an era of Trumpism, I realized that morality does not mean stress-testing your own dignity. When my peers are made fun of for bringing red bean soup to lunch, I sit with them in solidarity and, sometimes, I even share my jiaozi. In class, when someone asks if I am a card-carrying member of the Chinese Communist Party, I call them in and, if I can, I do my best to educate them. When the Asian community marches to protest violence and xenophobia in the face of this brutal COVID-19 pandemic, I march with them. As a young adult, this work is not always comfortable, but I believe it is good, necessary work.
All in all, this is what I am “good for:” sharing and protecting the nuanced, maximalist, and persistent culture I have inherited. By speaking out and injecting my own voice into the conversation, I am working to do my part in the long project of reclaiming and rehabilitating the narratives that have been written for the Asian community. It requires effort every, single day and, surely, this is not always glamorous or dramatic — sometimes, it just means lending an ear or a shoulder — but it is good through and through.