Don’t Stifle the Good

Right now I’m going through a phase that involves making some changes and finding new rhythms…spiritually and otherwise. (Hmmm…funny that it happens to be the middle of Lent.) Changes can be hard for those of us who struggle with perfectionism or are naturally high-achievers (Ahem…). It’s hard, not because we don’t welcome the change and betterment, but because we don’t tend toward moderation. For some strange reason we tend to only think of improvement on a large scale, missing the opportunity to make a one small and gradual change at a time. We like hitting the metaphorical “overhaul” button.

It’s probably an issue of pride. I’m finding that just about every fault seems to be rooted in pride. Perhaps we are actually lacking in the virtues of patience or temperance too; I’m not exactly sure. But what we are effectively doing is setting ourselves up for failure. We are stifling the good that could begin to take root with the passionate desire for complete transformation. I’m reminded of Voltaire’s aphorism:

“The better is the enemy of the good.”

One interpretation of his meaning is that when our mindset is “perfection or bust” we bust; and we miss the chance to accomplish a more moderate good. In trying for unrealistic goals, we often never get going or don’t make it very far. Had we tried instead for a more attainable end, we would have been successful in cultivating a lasting good, which we could then build upon later. 

I think that we need to embody G. K. Chesterton’s famous phrase: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” The thing of it is that we actually become the people that we want to be by practicing who we want to be. That means that we are going to start off doing a poor job of things and learn, by doing, how to make things better. Remember, practice makes perfect; we don’t get to perfection without a lot of practice.

This goes for both the secular and the sacred. We don’t decide to become healthy and instantly have no cravings for sugar and lots and lots of bread. We don’t decide to start practicing mental prayer and immediately (or ever) become St. Catherine of Siena, experiencing ecstatic visions with Christ. Change takes time, and the joy of important changes is only experienced over time. I’m learning this (slowly), and I’m trying to embrace the pace of implementing grace-filled incremental changes so that I don’t stifle the good that God wants to cultivate in my life.

Enduring to Perfection

I was recently having a conversation with my six-year-old son about sin. We were reading the Gospel account when Jesus called the Apostle Matthew from his life as a tax collector to follow him. Upon hearing the Pharisees’ murmuring against him associating with sinners, Jesus responded:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:12-13)

As we were discussing the passage, my son said,  “But we aren’t supposed to hang out with sinners.” I responded, “Well, Jesus’ point was that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy.” My thoughtful and emotive young son was visibly disturbed by this. “I’m not a sinner!” he exclaimed with a furrowed brown and tight lips. “Yes you are,” I said. “We all are. We are all sinners, and our sin has separated us from God. That is why Jesus came — to restore us to the Father by his grace. We are sinners who have been saved by God’s grace, but we have to actually acknowledge what we are without him.”

My son’s displeasure at the thought of identifying himself as a sinner is typical of our human condition, especially in the modern world. You and I struggle with the same thing. We don’t like thinking of ourselves as “sinners” or our sins as, well, sins — do we? We want to think of them as “challenges,” “less than ideal” traits, or “shortcomings.” Sin seems so…evil. Exactly. It is.

Being selfish or angry, lying, being puffed up with pride, gossiping about others, always wanting more — these things are evil. And our lives are actually inundated with them in many daily ways — great or small. But one reason that we don’t want to name them as they are is that we would then have to acknowledge that our temptation toward them is always present; and in many Christian environments we aren’t comfortable with that being the case.

We are more comfortable with the idea that Christ saving us from sin is in the past…all done. We want to live in a present Christian life that is all positive and all about our goodness in Christ. Therefore, there is a tendency to think of sinful struggles as something that we can overcome for good and be done with, moving from the “sinners” group to the “non-sinners” group.

If we are honest, we know that this isn’t theologically correct. We know that through the salvation and sanctification processes we are not removed from this fallen world or immune to sinful tendencies (that’s in heaven); but we don’t like being reminded that our sin, when committed, is still sin. We, like the Pharisees, want to call the tax collectors wrong behavior “sin,” but not our own.

Offering an alternative perspective, is wisdom from St. Francis de Sales:

“The discipline of purification can and must cease only with our life, therefore be not discouraged by infirmities; our perfection consists in struggling against them, which we cannot do unless we perceive them, neither can we conquer unless we come into collison with them. Victory does not lie in ignoring our infirmities, but in resisting them” (An Introduction to the Devout Life, Pt. 1, Ch. 5).

One reason that we are attracted to the “us” and “them” mindset is that it separates us from evil; and when we are separated from evil we don’t have to think about our own sin as sin. St. Francis highlights the danger in separating ourselves from our “infirmities” — we can’t move toward goodness, toward perfection, if we do so. We have to name that evil in us for what it is, and every time it rears its ugly head we have to call it ugly. If we don’t, we will forget it is there and never conquer it.

As we move toward heaven, we all have the potential for incredible goodness, but we will never realize it without persevering against our potential for terrible evil. In the words of Flannery O’Conner, we need to understand that “evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”¹ We must endure until perfected.


¹ O’Conner, Flannery. Mystery and Manners (1970). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: NY, p.209.

 

Copyright 2017 Jessica Ptomey

The Enemy of the Good

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We just started homeschooling this year, as our oldest has started Kindergarten. So I have spent the summer reading various books on education philosophies. A great book that I just finished reading is Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake, which is basically a summary and modern-day application of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education and teaching principles. Mason believed that a child’s mind should be respected and filled with only the best source material; and she advocated, among other things, reading aloud “living books” filled with “story” and letting children discover and connect first-hand with nature. Macaulay makes a most compelling case for Mason’s ideals in education — at home or in a school. But at various points, Macaulay notes the skeptic’s response, and that some may find such an approach to education too idealistic or impractical in our current society. She doesn’t think it is unattainable for the average person to give children this kind of education, but she concedes that we are imperfect people in imperfect circumstances. Toward the end of the book, she gives beautifully true advice: “If you can’t give them everything, give them something.” Continue reading “The Enemy of the Good”