This is the type of letter or conversation I hope that every parent has with their soon to be graduating high school son or daughter.
Dear Son/Daughter; Tell me what the word - good - means. Yes, I know you know the definition, but I would like to hear it from you.
Yes, of course, it has multiple meanings. But tell me the classic definition of good - that one pertains closest to the points I am about to make. Yes, good means possessing or displaying moral virtue. Synonyms for good include virtuous, upright, upstanding, and/or moral. Let’s talk about good. You recognize good when you see it and when you don’t. For example, you did not like it when your friend lied to you last week. You liked it when your friend helped the old lady across the street the other day. You told me about both and categorized both appropriately - not good and good.
There are many more examples we could talk about but that isn’t the main point of this discussion about good. Good is incompatible with bad. Virtue is incompatible with vice. One cannot serve two masters. Either we will love God and others more and more and self less and less (goodness) or we will learn to love ourselves more and more and God and others less and less (vice). This credo of St. Augustine is readily playing out in our crazy culture- and will be very evident in college. Some people will always try to have it both ways but that never works out in the long run.
What’s it going to be for you? Up until now, your faith has been cultivated in large part by your family and us, your parents. You have bristled at some of our rules, expectations and hopes. You have been readily obedient about others. This means you have learned the virtue of obedience and why it’s important and necessary - to the degree you have allowed and to the degree that we instilled it. Hopefully you recognize that one can’t be both disobedient and obedient by nature. One of the two holds a stronger sway over you; only you can determine which one - the vice or the virtue - is dominant. The choice is all yours. But its time to own your own faith, your own goodness.
You will soon leave for college which will significantly challenge your being good on multiple fronts. I don’t worry that you will jump into being not good with both feet,but that you will be tempted to adopt the notion that being good enough, compared to the bad actors all around you, will be good enough. This slow turn from striving to be good is subtle and has real consequences to faith, love and life.
When we begin to compare ourselves to the worst examples rather than the best, we will have begun to adopt the credo that we can have it both ways without consequence. Or that bad isn’t that bad. We will have accepted the false credo that it is ok to keep one foothold on good and one foothold on vice because after all nobody’s perfect. Yet, this credo is a cunning, false and unbalanced approach that prevents us from being sure footed in faith, life and love. This imbalance will erode virtue; as that happens, virtue will be replaced with selfishness and self-centeredness - aka vice.
Your reasons for going to college are noble. You want a great education. You want to become an engineer. You are looking forward to challenging yourself. You want to earn a degree that will support you and a family one day. You have said you are going to work hard to earn the highest grades you can because you realize your God-given talents! You also realize that mediocrity won’t cut it against the outstanding peers you will rub elbows with. But, did you know that less than half of incoming freshmen ever graduate from college? It’s not because they aren’t smart enough or fail to have the right intentions. College graduation rates are low in general because too many students set aside the desire to be good in multiple areas (personal and professional) for being good enough! But they soon discover that lowering the bar to good enough wasn’t good enough. Deciding that the effort isn’t worth it because it requires too much effort and leaves little room for play is less than noble. What great nation succeeded with that credo? Name one.
Did you know that the Roman Empire eventually fell after its ancient peoples set aside work for play as they became ‘addicted’ to blood sports in the Coliseum. As the work week shrunk from 6-7 days/week to 3-4; their economy ground to a halt. Eventually, the Empire was unable to rise to the challenges brought on by invading forces and they ceased to be the Roman empire. The real world can only operate well on good rather than good enough. It certainly can’t sustain itself when it outright operates on being bad!
The same goes with searching for jobs, finding the right spouse, marriage, and love. What’s it going to be for you? Good or good enough? You will observe everything from serial adultery to chastity. You will see cheating and honesty. You will see faithfulness and faithlessness. You will see hope and despair. And you will see everything in between. Pretty soon the in-between will look to you like shades of virtue when in actuality they are shades of vice. That’s what being good enough does to our hearts. It prevents us from being good; it tricks us into thinking that being good enough is good enough when it actually isn’t. God continues to love us through all of our different stages including when we are bad to sort of good. However, it’s us who will grow more and more distant from Him during these times. We will begin to believe that He isn’t good enough for us! After all, we wonder, what kind of God would throw me or anyone into Hell just for being human? And our list of complaints against Him grow as we convince ourselves that His moral code is too rigid. We ask what’s wrong with just being good enough?
It is this kind of thinking that relegates holiness to bean counting; to a grading scale wherein a D is still a passing grade. We call saints the goody-two-shoes; we acknowledge that they deserve the A but who wants to have to work that hard while leaving all the fun behind? We want to live the moral life sort of and so we define morality in ways that befit our lifestyles rather than according to God’s moral laws. We pretend His moral laws don’t even begin to apply to the 21st century! We wonder if God is even alive or active in our daily lives. And so we try to live under the radar of the Holy One - kind of like Adam and Eve. We go so far as to twist the following lesson given to St. Paul by Jesus himself. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” [2 Corinthians 12:9]
And so we boast of our weaknesses while failing to consider that they are perfected by His grace - if we allow it. But that is the problem right? We kind of like our weaknesses. And so we avoid the graces that are readily available through the Sacraments, prayer, living good and setting aside selfishness. Holiness in not an option if we want to enter the presence of His Holiness. 2 Timothy 2:21 teaches us that it is possible; “If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work!”
I believe God is calling you to live the good life not the goods life or the pleasure seeking life. He invites you to the good life now and forever more. This invitation allows you to strive to be good while relying on His grace. Yes, it's a crazy college culture you are going to be thrown in. Live up to your heritage as a son [daughter] of God. Please don’t ever compare yourselves to anyone. He doesn’t! And you are good. Good enough has never been in your vocabulary - don’t start using it now!