"Be good", I said to a friend as I waved goodbye.
I usually say "talk to you later" or "have a good day", but this time I said "be good". As soon as I said that and turned to walk away, I felt strange as if I had said something wrong. I peeked back behind me to see if the other person felt the same way but they had already started walking away from me.
As I walked on, I thought about that last thing I said, "be good". What I meant was that I hope he feels good for the rest of the day, that he has good health, and even to say that I hope he finds himself in no trouble. Be good.
Be good. I'm sure my friend thought nothing of the two words. I imagine they walked away without even noticing those two words spoken. Still, there was something about that phrase that just didn't sit well.
As I walked along, I realized what part of that phrase felt so odd. It wasn't so much the command of the phrase "to be" but the adjective for which I was commanding them to be - "good". What felt odd was realizing how the word good can mean something very different to different people. Although my intent was an offering for good health, good feeling, or good luck, I realized that I was actually offering whatever the other person interpreted the word "good" to mean (presuming they even heard me speak the phrase and took it to heart, of course).
I laughed to myself, and partially at myself, because I knew, we both knew, that the phrase was only meant to be a kind closing to our conversation and nothing more. Still, my mind got caught on this phrase. This simple statement of good will and good intention. These two words could mean so many things to so many people; I just couldn't let it go and began considering various ways this phrase might be used. Two friends that find joy in getting themselves in small bits of innocent trouble together may tell each other to be good, ironically, so as to tell each other not to get into any entertaining mischief without the other. A child holding their dog's leash on a walk may tell their dog to be good when the dog tries to run or bark at other dogs. A parent dropping their child off at school may tell that child to be good as a reminder to be good for their teachers and behave according to the school's rules.
The next time I saw this friend, I told them this story and my thoughts behind the phrase. I was right - they had not heard me say those two words. They actually raised an eyebrow at me and told me I was thinking too hard on what was only a kind closing to our brief conversation. Then the most fascinating thing happened: we began talking about what we felt the word 'good' meant to our friendship. What could we make 'good' mean if we were to use this phrase with each other? The contexts and environments we share do not involve walking dogs. We are not each other's child being reminded to behave and don't typically find ourselves in any mischief together. We came to the realization that the phrase "be good", for us, was more of a want for the other to succeed in whatever we do until the next time we meet - a motivational message specific to how we talk with each other and share stories about what's happening in our lives with each other. What I thought was a message of good health and good luck ended up meaning so much more because of the relationship we share.
I've started saying this phrase to more of my friends; not all, but some. It has become something I say to help me reflect on the relationships I have made with different people. Some friends are caught off guard and give a double-take when they hear me say "be good" instead of "see you later". For some, it begets a smile of interest as they consider in that moment my intention for using this offbeat phrase. For others, it brings about a self-reflective retort of disbelief in their ability to be good with words such as "right", "I'll try", or "we'll see".
My favorite part of this phrase, "be good", is the personal interpretation we as humans are free to create and recreate again and again. When I walk past people on the street or see people driving by, I pause to consider what relationship might be reflected in this phrase. Which people would this phrase reflect inspiration versus mischief, self-confidence versus compliance. I can only imagine so many different people's response to this phrase and the discussion it might spark. So to those I see walking past me in the street, be good. To those driving alongside me on the freeway, be good. To those reading this whom I may not have yet met...