Campus Life

Free Listening

Figuring out what it means to be a good person

A strange loneliness crept over me when I noticed the man with a "Free Listening" sign sitting on the steps of Lobby 7. It had occurred to me that I had approached him the day before because nobody else wanted to talk to me. I stood there, wondering if I would be able to form lasting friendships at MIT as I waited for my next CPW event before eventually building up the courage to talk to him again.

"Hey, how's it going?"

"It's a beautiful day," he said, putting down his book.

"How long have you been doing this?"

"Since 2018 or so, but only when the weather is decent."

"Dang, that's a long time," I said. "Why do you do it?"

He thought for a moment. 

"I think that bad things can happen when someone has nobody who listens to them," he said. "There was a point in my life when I really needed someone to talk to, and I don't want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. That's why I want to listen to people."

I was taken aback by his kindness. He was giving up so much of his time to help others. His worldview seemed fundamentally different from the MIT students I'd talked to all weekend. They would work unbelievably hard to become researchers and engineers, yet it felt like the only time they would go out of their way for others was when it would benefit themselves in some way.

It occurred to me that I was just as self-serving. I wondered if I only did nice things for my friends and family so that they would see me as a good person. How many nice things would I have done if nobody would know that it was me who did them? Would I have done them for a stranger? To be honest, if I knew that it wouldn't affect my life at all, I probably wouldn't do too much to help others.

"I can't think of the last time I did something truly selfless," I said, suddenly tearing up. "I feel like I'm only pretending to be a good person."

"I'm sure you've done plenty of good things," he said gently. "What does it take for a good thing to be selfless?"

I hadn't thought about that before. 

"You have to be doing it to help others, not yourself," I decided. "Like cleaning a park when nobody's watching. It's not selfless if you're only doing it so that other people will see you doing it."

"I see," he said. "So you have to do good things for the right reasons."


"You strike me as a good person though," he said. "You want to be selfless, and that has to mean something."

"I feel like I'm just pretending to be a good person," I said again. "I tell myself that I want to make the world a better place, but when I think about it, everything I do is just to benefit myself. Maybe that's the only way to get into a school like this. Maybe that's just how everybody is. But I feel like a fraud. I want to be a good person, like you, not just someone who pretends."

He thought about that for a second, then said, "You know, I think people are like trees. When you're young, you need to focus on growing. Eventually, you'll become a big tree and you can give back. It's okay to focus on yourself right now."

Two years later, I sometimes remember my conversation with the “free listening” man, who goes by Kip, and think about what it means to me to be a good person. The conversation made me realize that I don't necessarily have to feel bad about doing things to benefit myself. Prioritizing my classes and projects allows me to become an engineer who can change the world for the better, and choosing an impactful career makes my studying about something bigger than myself.

I wasn't upset about not doing enough for the world though—I felt bad about doing good things for selfish reasons. Couldn’t Kip also be doing it all for himself? What if he listened to strangers because it made him feel better about himself? Maybe everything that we do is self-serving at some level. But even if nothing is entirely selfless, at least listening feels genuine even if you derive personal fulfillment from it. Pursuing an impactful career because you want to feel good about the difference that you made in the world is still admirable. It’s possible to be self-serving and good, as long as I'm driven by my own principles more than external rewards. 

At the time, I didn't understand why Kip cared so much about listening to people. I knew that listening was important, but I had always felt that most people, including myself, have people who care about them and are happy to listen to them. I thought that the hard part was making people comfortable with opening up, not listening.

But when I found myself fighting depression, I began to appreciate the importance of listening. I would open up to people, and yet, I wouldn't feel understood. Sometimes, people wouldn’t care; other times, they would care, but they wouldn’t understand. 

Being a good listener is like being a good person—you can’t fake it. Opening up to someone who really cares about your feelings and tries to understand them feels different from talking to someone who listens out of obligation. The more people cared about me, the more they tried to understand my feelings, which mattered much more than whether they could make eye contact or not.

But listening skills are also needed to make someone feel understood. When I started therapy, I immediately noticed how my therapist would ask questions that showed that they were trying to understand my feelings even if they didn’t get it right away. Feeling depressed made me care more about other people's feelings, so I started making more of an effort to put myself in other people's shoes. I realized that I sometimes said things in a way that was easily misinterpreted or responded with suggestions when I should have focused on understanding. With practice, I began to learn how to be a better listener.

My understanding of what being a good person means has also changed throughout my life. I used to think that being a good person was about what you do to make the world a better place, but I've realized that it's not just what you do; it's also why you do it. I could donate all my savings to charity, but instead of making me feel like a better person, I would feel like someone pretending to be a good person. Even if I managed to hide it from everyone, I’d feel like I was trying to convince myself I was a better person than I was. What's the point of doing good if, deep down, I don't mean it?

Kip, on the other hand, cares about people so much that he wants to spend his afternoons listening to strangers. When you have a conversation with him, you can tell that he is enjoying it. He cares about you as a person, and he isn’t just doing it to make himself feel better. Being a good person has to come naturally: by living life and building empathy.

As awful as it was, depression made me a better person by making me a better listener. At the end of my sophomore year, I finally understood what Kip had told me during CPW. I don’t want anybody to feel like nobody cares about them. So whenever given the opportunity, I try to listen wholeheartedly.