By Fr. Garry Richmeier, C.PP.S.
There is a part of most every human being that I call The Drive to be Good. At least that is my experience. It is one of the pieces of the puzzle that makes us who we are. It may be the piece that has enabled us to survive as a species this long without destroying each other. But it is a piece that we need to situate well in our lives for it to benefit ourselves and others.
The Drive to be Good is a very generic way of describing it. People often come to me in counseling and spiritual direction asking for help in being “good,” but there are many ways of describing that. Various ways people ask the question include: “How do I know I’m doing God’s will?”, “How do I be a good parent/person/citizen/employee/boss?”, “How do I become less selfish/less attached to possessions?”, “How can I be more efficient in my job?”, “How can I communicate better with my spouse?”, “How do I balance work and family?”, “How do I succeed in life?”, “How do I become holy?”, etc.
To me, these questions reflect the “goodness” mentioned in Genesis, when God created human beings (and all creation) good. The rich young man in Mark’s gospel asked Jesus a similar question when he said “What must I do to enter the kingdom of heaven?”
This drive to be good (or at least better) is responsible for all human achievements, growth, and accomplishments, whether we’re talking about technological achievements, morality, spirituality, racial and social peaceful coexistence, etc. It helps keep us from becoming stagnant and complacent by recognizing that there is something more out there than where we’re at at this moment or what we see now.
But like every other part of our human makeup, the drive to be good will help us only if we situate it properly in our lives. Otherwise, it creates problems. For example, we might limit it to striving to be good in only one small area which benefits mainly ourselves (like making my first million dollars). We can become very good at making money or climbing the social ladder, but if that isn’t combined with growing in (getting better at) compassion, charity, and respect for others, it will not be good. We see the negative results of this in the vast inequality between the rich and the poor today.
A different kind of danger related to the drive to be good is the desire to “get there.” This has to do with the illusion that there is some specific place to get to where we will finally be “good.” So the person who reaches the goal of making a million dollars decides that is not good enough because there is another million to make. When is enough, enough?
In this sense, being “good” will be forever out of reach, and we can waste our lives running after an illusion.
Religions can run into similar problems. Some religious traditions will very clearly outline when a person has arrived at being “good” or holy. For example, a religion might tell its members that you are good when you say these prayers, or you believe this set of religious laws or this interpretation of scripture, or you give this much money to charity/the church, or you have these political views, etc.
In this sense, once you’ve “arrived,” there is no need to go beyond that. So people tend to stay frozen at that level of understanding and Spiritual maturity. The rich young man in the gospel had this problem. He thought he had done all that his religion required by keeping the commandments since he was young. But he could not accept Jesus’ invitation to something more.
There are ways to avoid these dangers. One thing that helps is to cultivate a healthy humility. This means reminding myself that my knowledge, perceptions, and understanding is limited and incomplete. This includes how I look at my religious tradition, God, my political persuasion, and any other human endeavor I want to consider. Knowing that I don’t know it all and that there is something beyond me can help me avoid condescension, exclusivity, complacency, and stagnation. Also helpful is a healthy sense of curiosity regarding what is new or different, which can help us grow by prompting us to entertain new possibilities. And, as with everything, we need to be honest with ourselves and continually ask ourselves the question “Am I doing this (drive to get good) simply for myself or for others also?”
Our built-in human drive to be good can be the driving force in helping us be who we were created to be. But only if we direct and manage it well.
All of the videos in this series can be found here: Assembly God’s Puzzle.
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[Fr. Garry Richmeier, a Precious Blood priest and spiritual director, holds a Master’s of Divinity Degree from St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a Master’s of Counseling Psychology degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.]