I heard about a situation in which a youngish teenage girl went to Confession and told the priest that her father had been forcing himself on her and having sex with her. The Priest, incandescent with anger, confronted the father and told him that he knew what the man was doing to his daughter and that if he didn’t stop the Priest was going to report the man to the authorities. The man started out nicely enough, unemotionally pointing out that every society has laws against a father having sex with his own daughter because this is what every man actually wants to do; since it is what every man wants to do it is a natural human impulse and therefore it’s ok. Without any change in the tone of his voice he calmly said, “So stay out of my business,” and clocked the Priest in the face hard enough to knock him out. When the Priest came to it was night and he found himself somewhere in the woods.
The trouble with trying to be good is that we can sometimes get trampled upon by the bad desires of others; in such a situation, what do we do? If it is simply a case of our own safety we might run for the hills. However, when the safety of others is endangered goodness requires that we stay and protect those who cannot protect themselves. This can present us with a moral dilemma when we discover that while we want to be good we don’t want to have to be THAT good! When we were young we thought in terms of absolutes: Black or White, Good or Bad. But as we make our way through life, for various reasons we sometimes have to make compromises, sometimes discovering in a situation that we cannot find the internal strength to be as good as goodness requires of us right then. The fact is that I, personally, know of no one who does not have to wrestle with growing in degrees of goodness; this requires that we be as good as we can be in a situation, and if later reflection reveals to us that that was not good enough, that we then resolve to become better.
We tend to view our heroes as having been born a hero, but the fact is that many, through repeated failures, slowly grow into their ability to be heroic. Nelson Mandela once made the remark: “As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Subsequent to his release, Mandela became known as someone who was able to unify others through his ability to teach others to forgive; that ability, however, came about originally not through his desire to be a saint, but by his desire to not let his own heart be held captive by his bitterness. I am sure that there must have been days in his cell over those many (27) years when, his heart poisoned by his rage and bitterness, he was disappointed in his own failure to wish his captors well; otherwise why, upon leaving the prison, would he have made that determination to also leave his bitterness behind? Even Nelson Mandela knew that goodness required him to grow into being better than he had been.
Our inner life is a slow evolution from ignorance to enlightenment, from a lack of any morality to a sense of goodness, from one choice… to a better choice. It seems there is always a tension in our inner life between being as we find ourselves to be… and becoming better.