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The secret quality to being “good”


Mark Pan4ratte /Unsplash | CC0

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 02/28/21

Lent is the perfect time to work on this disposition.

It would stretch the truth to the breaking point to claim that I’m a good person. I’m okay, I guess. Most of the time, though, my day is arranged to a shocking degree along the lines of what’s most convenient for me. I avoid arguments because it’s more pleasant than yelling. I’m nice because I want people to be nice in return. If I do the right thing, it may be more out of a sense of duty than out of an internal commitment that urges goodness simply for the sake of goodness. The ego and selfishness of my choices are implicit.

I’m not bragging about moral ineptitude as if I’m some sort of remorseless super-villain. I want to really, truly think of other people first, to be unrelentingly generous, kind, and thoughtful. I want the virtue of goodness to take hold within me and motivate all my actions with no compromise. When I drift into complacency about this commitment, Lent is always right around the corner to remind me. Keep trying. Lent is a time to get serious about emotional and spiritual health, so I take up the Lenten disciplines – prayer, fasting, almsgiving – and hope the changes become permanent.

I usually fail. On Ash Wednesday this year, for instance, I was so hungry from fasting that I developed a genuine annoyance with God, an attitude that swiftly defeated the purpose of the whole exercise. Dreaming of ham sandwiches and shaking my fist at Heaven does not a holy day make. So there I am in confession again, just as I am every Lent, telling the priest about how my high hopes of finally maturing into a good person have been dashed, how I followed Christ into the desert and immediately gave in to every temptation.

In my experience the vast majority of us, when asked, will claim we’re, “pretty good people.” From one perspective, this response makes sense. After all, we aren’t evil dictators or serial killers. We’ve made our share of mistakes, sure, but who hasn’t? From another perspective, though, it is entirely incorrect for any of us to claim that we’re good. We all make mistakes every single day, doing and saying things that, while they may not seem like a huge deal at the time, if we were to take a long hard look at ourselves, ought to greatly concern us.

Being truly, honest-to-goodness good on a daily, consistent basis, in every interaction, is well-nigh impossible. As I examine my own life and come to grips with yet another failure, I wonder why it’s so difficult. Why is it such a struggle to be good?

It occurs to me that pride plays a huge role. Pride eases me into self-delusion, whispering in my ear that my intentions were good, my motives pure, my mistakes not so big. Pride is a protective device, because if I honestly confront exactly who I am with no illusions of grandeur, it’s devastating. As long as that shield is in place, though, I can pretend to be a good person while simultaneously experiencing no vulnerability. No soul searching. No apologies. No guilt. My supposed goodness becomes armor that no one can pierce because, if I’m good, no one is allowed to question or judge me.

Of course, this isn’t goodness at all. Consider people who are truly good. What does it cost them? Christ was killed for it. Peter was killed for it. The Virgin Mary wept before her dying son. The list goes on and on. Consider the best parts of your life — the people you love most purely, and how those relationships are full of goodness. Those same relationships leave us vulnerable, right? That’s the cost of goodness.

This is the shocking but undeniable truth about goodness – it’s intertwined with fragility. To be good, we must be vulnerable. At times, our efforts will be entirely unrewarded or even met with hostility. Goodness leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of heartbreak. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it in powerfully when she says, “The condition of being good is that it should always be possible for you to be morally destroyed by something you couldn’t prevent. To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world…”

The question I’m asking myself this Lent is if I’m willing to be fragile. There’s no way to achieve goodness without fragility because there’s no other way to be open to life. Whatever it is that life has in store for me, I would like to meet it with goodness. Not because I’m invulnerable, but because the risk required to discover goodness is worth it, and with the fragility comes hope. I have hope that the goodness of this world won’t remain forever unrewarded, that it won’t tire out and grow old. If I consent to finally strive for goodness not because it’s convenient but because goodness is worth it for its own sake, who knows what will ripple from that? How the universe will be changed?

Maybe this is the path to finally becoming a good person. Knowing how conflicted my soul is, I’ll probably never make it all the way to the end of that journey without a whole lot of help. That’s okay, though, because I’m ready to accept the fragility of knowing that, even if I can only manage a bit of goodness here or there, I can always pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep trying. 


Read more:
6 Tips to help curb pride

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