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Heaven, self-respect and the Golden Rule


Why be good when it is so easy to be bad?” I asked a surprised group of students one morning at the community college where I teach. It was obvious that they were not expecting such a question.

“What do you mean?” asked one. “I really don’t consider myself to be that good. In fact, I do things all the time that I know are wrong. But I do them anyway.”

“I’m not asking what makes you perfect,” I persisted. And then I went further.

“In my book, you are all admirable people,” I said. “You come here faithfully, behave cooperatively and participate cheerfully. I suspect that in other aspects of your lives, you also strive for the good. I am just asking you to think, ‘Why do I do that?’ ”

They were becoming more comfortable now, and I got some thoughtful and thought-provoking answers.

My listeners were from an assortment of backgrounds and personal experiences. On this day they included a Muslim sheik, a follower of the Celtic Druids pretending for practical, family purposes to be a devout Mormon, two Christians who had previously written dramatic accounts of being “born again” as followers of Jesus Christ, several devout Baptists, two or three Catholics, and some who were not volunteering any details about their religious practices.

Also present was a young man from the Sudan, one of the “lost boys,” youngsters whose Christian parents were killed years ago on a day when Muslim extremists from the northern part of their country came to take over their village. He and other little boys, who were in the countryside herding the animals, walked to neighboring Ethiopia, seeking safety. Eventually, after a 10-year stay in Kenya, the United Nations brought them to America. They are here now, pursuing studies, being family for each other.

I was expecting a wide assortment of answers from this group, whose life experiences were so varied. But their answers, given anonymously, were remarkably alike.

“I am good,” they collectively said, “because I more or less follow the Golden Rule. I like to treat people the way I want to be treated.”

And, “I am fair. I hate injustice in any form and consider it evil.”

“I am good because it keeps me at peace with myself. When I get off-track, I feel it all over. I am uneasy.”

“I try to treat others well so they will treat me well. I obey the law. I look at my behavior constantly, and try to see me as others do. I have been bullied in my life. I never want to do that. But the experience has made me careful, and I find I am always watching to make sure I will not do anything bad to make someone else want to hurt me.”

“I am good because I am loving, open-minded and giving. I am also honest and trustworthy with a huge heart. I treat others with respect, animals with care, and our environment tenderly. I love and respect myself.”

I moved on to groups of young parents.

“Why are you good?” I asked, “when it is so easy to be bad?”

“Because my children are watching,” came the common reply. “I don’t want to give them bad example.”

“But you weren’t always a parent,” was my comeback. “What’s your motivation apart from your children?”

“My parenting,” one said. “I have always known what my parents expected of me. And their expectations were high. That was a gift that continues to help me in my life. I want to give my children that same gift.”

One, a friend from childhood, did not hesitate. “My parents showed me by their behavior what it meant to be good.” She paused and smiled. “Just like yours.

“My upbringing has been everything in my life,” she said. “My dad has been dead for 34 years. I still find myself thinking in every situation that involves a moral decision, ‘What would G.B. think I should do?’ ”

One of my students answered much the same. “For 19 years, I have seen and watched my sisters make plenty of mistakes. I don’t want my parents mad at me!”

I asked my grown children. “Why are you good?” Did I imagine that each took a mental step backward as this question was asked by their mother?

“Being good keeps me at peace with myself.”

“For self-respect.”

“Pride. Being good is not so easy.”

“To stay out of trouble. I don’t need the hassle.”

“I am really not that good,” said one.

“Of course you are,” I replied, thinking of the loving parent, the law-abiding homeowner and conscientious worker that I know.

“Not really,” was the rejoinder. “I do plenty of bad things.”

“Like what?” I persisted. I should have known better.

“None of your business,” shot back the answer.

Peace and goodness

Perhaps the most soul-seeking probe among this group produced this reply. “Past pain. I pray every night for anyone who is lonely or hurt. I try always to envision what crosses others might be carrying, and to remind myself that my cup is really overflowing with blessings, even on days when it seems not to be. That makes me want to be thoughtful, caring and courteous. And there are reminders every day that this works because I know how grateful I myself am when someone is kind to me, even if that kindness is simply giving me a warm smile.”

I started in on people I perceive to have fervent faith. They did not disappoint me.

“Because I am made in the image of God,” said my friend who is a practicing charismatic. “And when I am good, I become more God-like.”

“It is hard for people to be at peace, which is the basis for all joy, unless they are trying to be good,” said a Benedictine monk. “I think of [how] John of the Cross [expressed it]: ‘Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.’ ”

Two thoughtful young African-American men had similar answers, both relating to the divine, both full of hope. “Because my Creator is good, I am good,” said one. “I feed my body and spirit with good things, and those good things come out of me and are shared with others.”

“I choose to be good,” said the other, whose life experience has not been so rosy, “because after death I want life to be easier.”

I had been surprised up to this point not to have received more answers referring to divine judgment or reward or punishment in the next life. Now I heard some.

“I am looking forward to heaven, and I have to live by Jesus’ example to get there,” said the wife of a Presbyterian minister.

“When we do bad things to others, we are in fact hurting ourselves,” said the husband of a college classmate. “The more good we do to our fellow humans, the more we bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, and it becomes harder to do bad things. Like Pogo says, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’ ”

“I want to go to heaven when I die. And that is why it is so important to me that I bring my daughter up to be a good person so I can share heaven with her!”

Finally, I asked an especially close friend. She looked surprised. “Why, because the God who made me can see my heart,” she said. “Why would I want to be any other way?”

I moved on to a group of women who are retired professionals, grandmothers and activists in worthy causes of all sorts.

“Why are you good?” I asked.

This group really thought over the question.

“I think by now it is habit,” said one. “I remember a religion teacher in college telling us that repetitive good behavior that becomes habitual translates into virtue. Constant behavior that veers away from the good and become habitual becomes vice. I have never forgotten that. It reminds me that even though once in awhile I stray, for the most part I stay on the path because I really do want to be virtuous.”

“My conscience tells me in a minute when I am not being good,” was one immediate answer. “I fight many battles with myself, but if I want peace, I know I must make the right decision in any situation, no matter how tempting another more attractive course of action looks to me.”

“Just to feel OK about myself,” said another. “When I have done something that does not really measure up to my values, I find myself rationalizing to make it fit. But it never does. I guess you might say that guilt plays a part in my being good. When I get away from doing what I know in my heart is right, I just feel rotten.”

“Lack of opportunity to be bad,” said a realist. She seemed a little regretful. “I don’t have as many temptations as I used to.”

I think the Dalai Lama would be proud of my responders. He, a leader in one of the world’s great religions, states in his book, Ethics for the New Millennium, that if everyone had two attitudes, sincere love of self, and a genuine, compassionate wish for the good fortune of others, we would take a giant step toward world peace. The answers most gave when asked about being good involved their dealings not only with themselves, but also with others. The Dalai Lama would link this to spirituality.

“Spirituality,” he writes, “I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit -- such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony -- which bring happiness to both self and others.”

Of course, it would be fanciful to think that everyone’s actions are good, no matter how good his or her intentions. I liked the following realistic comment:

“Of course I don’t like for others to be bad to me, and I know I am setting an example for others, especially my own children. However, I am bad when I need to be; sometimes I am just pushed beyond the limits of my resistance.”

‘Bad life not for me’

And the motivation to avoid bad behavior is sometimes purely practical, as in the case of this individual: “I try to be good, because the bad life is too much of a hassle. I don’t have money to pay for fines and tickets. I couldn’t stand to go to jail, where somebody else is telling me when to wake up, when to eat, or even when I can use the pay phone. The bad life is just not for me. That’s why I try to be good!”

And his buddy said, “If I do something stupid, I get punished. It is just easier to stay out of trouble and avoid all the conflict.”

But it doesn’t always work this way for everyone. One person has perceived reality thus: “When you are trying to do the right thing, it always turns out wrong, as opposed to when you are doing the wrong thing. Then it seems you receive more and things work out.”

And finally, hypocrisy was strongly decried. “Just because people seem to be religious, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily good.”

And an even more critical indictment: “I don’t think that humans are good. I think they may pretend to be good, but truly we are all selfish. We are good only when it benefits us, like when we give a thought to heaven, or when it gets us recognized. I personally know I am not being good.”

I am sure there are times when most of us know this as well. But it is in the striving to get over the hurdles that real humanity is developed. Stephen Covey, in his motivational book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, recommends that all persons write out a mission statement for their lives -- what they will try for it to be. Then, in a second exercise, he asks his readers to imagine what they would like for others to say about them at the end of their lives. We hope that what we want to become and what we do become will be the same and apparent to others. I am assuming that the goal for most of us would include being good people. So how do we do it?

A young man whose Christianity is the driving force in his life remains conscious of Jesus’ two greatest commandments: “Love the lord your God with your heart, soul, mind, body and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Dalai Lama did not take these directives from Jesus. But he has come to the same conclusion in calling for a spiritual (not a religious) revolution:

My call for a spiritual revolution is not a call for a religious revolution. Nor is it a reference to a way of life that is somehow otherworldly, still less to something magical or mysterious. Rather, it is a call for a radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self; it is a call to turn toward the wider community of beings with whom we are connected and for conduct that recognizes others’ interests alongside our own.

So, why be good when it is so easy to be bad? On a multiple-choice test I would choose, “All of the above.”

Janelle Lazzo is a free-lance writer and teacher who lives in Roeland Park, Kan.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002