By Stanislaus Alla, SJ

Many thoughts sail across our hearts and minds but we struggle to find the right words or phrases to express them – words that are simple and clear, profound as well as thought-provoking. Here is a piece of advice, partly an appeal, that struck me at the first glance itself. ‘In this world, try to be both good and able. If you do not become able men, at least, try to be good men. The country has no use for able and bad men.’ Though not in a gender-sensitive language, it is well intended and applicable for all.

The advice is not given by a Novice Master or a Religious Superior to fellow religious or seminarians or priests. These words, precious and memorable, are part of the farewell address given by a principal to the students of a school in Myanmar (earlier Burma). Before leaving his motherland to become the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant spoke to the students from his heart, visualizing their role in nation building as ‘good and able’ people.

By now some of you may have recalled Abraham Lincoln’s famous letter, written to his son’s teacher. Lincoln is forthright: teach my son to be just, humble, dedicated, and to understand that it is ‘far more honourable to fail than to cheat’ and ‘never to put a price tag on his heart or soul.’ Here we get to see the heart of a father who desires his son to be honest, sincere, truthful, or, in one word, to grow up to be a person of ‘integrity.’ Lincoln and U Thant, separated by time but united by a steely resolve to shape humanity for the better, shared a vision: that their children, and all children by default, should grow up, first and foremost, to be good people, period.

Countless number of parents may have conveyed this value to their children in the genre of bedside-stories and teachers may have passed on the same formally in the classrooms. In the Indian context, one also hears  – or used to hear – the elderly tell the youth: ‘son or beti, whatever you do or wherever you go, bring a ‘good-name’ to your parents (family, dear ones and the teachers) and don’t do anything that brings a bad name to them.’ Emotive and rustic, sharp and sensitive, ‘good-name’ is a highly loaded code word, and it directly speaks to the young hearts. They know that good-name is acquired over a long period of time, and it is easy to lose it but difficult to uphold and enhance it.

Lincoln’s letter to the teacher, U Thant’s exhortation to the students and the appeal of the elderly to bring a good-name to the dear ones, have one thing in common, the virtue of goodness! It is a quality that is extremely important and growing up to be good in one’s life is not optional. Also, there is an implicit (in U Thant’s advice it is explicit) prioritization between the two: goodness over ability, who you are over what you do, and being over doing.

Largely ‘goodness’ expresses itself and is to be noted in one’s being honest, sincere, truthful, kind, generous, magnanimous, respectful, thoughtful etc. Alternately, ‘ability’ represents and is reflected in one’s knowledge, skills, talents, and in being successful as a worker, thinker, organizer, manager or administrator. Such an expectation – expecting persons to grow up to be ‘good and able’ – has its own limitations but the point is to understand the significance of these two critically important dimensions.

Lincoln and U Thant, separated by time but united by a steely resolve to shape humanity for the better, shared a vision: that their children, and all children by default, should grow up, first and foremost, to be good people.

Both ‘good and able’ are valuable virtues and one is not opposed to the other. One can distinctly identify them and, ideally, they should go together, mutually sustaining and nourishing each other. It is expected that each person grows to be good while acquiring knowledge and skills and put to good use these God-given gifts. Also, one grows up to be ‘good and able’ concurrently, without first having to wait to grow up to be good before working on one’s abilities. 

One may wonder why discuss this topic at all since people normally wish others to grow up to be good and able, trusting that those responsible for the formation of the others are doing their job. Equally, debates can continue on the role of ‘nature and nurture’ and who (parents, teachers, friends, media etc) get to have a larger role in influencing one’s formation, but that is not the focus here either. While we continue to imagine that people are getting opportunities to learn to be good, it seems that, in reality, the ground is shifting fast, particularly in this post-modern and post-truth era.

In today’s world, success, almost at any cost, is the reigning mantra. Ambition has become a virtue (from being a vice: Thomas Aquinas’ Summa describes it so) and people aspire to be successful. Whatever the sector, people like to succeed as workers, managers, administrators, organizers or whatever. Well-wishers tell children and adults to be successful. This may take the form of advice, appeal, admonition or warning. The issue is: Will the same people who advise you to be successful will also remind you, with a similar intensity and force, that you have to grow up to be a good person, a person of integrity?

I am afraid that it is not the case. The road to success that leads to victory is what people largely seek. In this maddening rush to travel in the success-victory bogey, one needs to be intelligent and skillful, sharp and shrewd (even cunningness and compromise will be tolerated) simply to compete, survive and flourish. Success is fast turning from being a goal to the goal to the only goal. Not only that: at times people are ridiculed for being uncompromisingly truthful and sincere. And, if a person says that she will not cooperate with evil or tell a lie, others are likely to tell her, ‘You are trying to be good but how will you survive in this world?’ Implied here is the idea that utterly being good need not be a strength, and, it may even turn out to be a liability. How far we have moved away from Lincoln and U Thant and our own elders who exhorted us to be good!

There is an implicit prioritization between the two: GOODNESS over ability, who you ARE over what you do, and BEING over doing.

The life of the clergy and religious has gone through epochal changes in the last few decades, certainly so in India, and the bug of success-victory has stung them as well. Whether one is in the ecclesial or secular institution or in the informal and spiritual sector, similar parameters are used to assess: incomes and outputs, growth or decadence, gains or losses and, based on that, you will be called a success or a failure. The question is, is this the way, or the only way to evaluate our performance? Can we, who are called to work for the Kingdom, to bring Christ’s light and life into the lives of people, be assessed this way at all? The logic of being a disciple could defy this logic. When one works for the Kingdom, failures and defeats, struggles and sufferings come our way and they evade any easy assessment.

While it is good to work for success, committed disciples ought to free themselves from this trap of evaluating their apostolic activities exclusively this way. The well-known prayer, ‘Prophets of a Future Not Our Own’ attributed to Oscar Romero  – but actually composed by Bishop Ken Untener – reminds us that ‘We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.’ Several of the works initiated and undertaken by the clergy and religious in the past would have defied the normal human logic of success. Called to share the Good News, they moved about, being good and doing good, facing all odds. Success came decades or centuries later. Measuring a person’s life with the framework of ‘able’ or success is grossly insufficient, especially when we are dealing with those whom the Lord calls to be good – experiencing and reflecting divine goodness.

A few days before Christmas 2022, Harsh Mandar, a well-known human rights activist, gave a message to the Vidyajyoti Parivar at Delhi. The staff and students interacted with him for about half a day. More than the message he gave (which was very good) what impressed us the most was his goodness, his integrity. Students talked about it for days. They recognized Harsh Mandar as a person of values, a sincere and genuine man who can be trusted. Most likely, even his enemies would vouch for his integrity, because that is what he is. While both ‘good and able’ are important, able/success can go only so far but goodness can pierce through human thoughts and touch and nourish hearts and souls.

Father Stan Swamy illustrates this point very well. While he used his ‘abilities’ (knowledge and skills) successfully for the empowerment of the Adivasis, it is his ‘goodness’ – seen in his willingness to face struggles and sufferings and in being kind to fellow prisoners – that made him a remarkable person. His being ‘good’ shook the conscience of the nation even as he manifested Christ’s love and Kingdom values, even when they accused him falsely, put him in jail and let him die in the hospital.

Year 2023 provides us another opportunity to reset our priorities. Let us strive to recognize the distinction between ‘able’ and ‘good’ and try to bring ‘goodness’ back into the conversations, secular or religious. Blessed are you if others describe you as a good person or a person with integrity! Astonishingly, the Lord’s lenses are fitted to recognize only the ‘good and faithful’ servants and not the others, even though they might have been highly successful.

Stanislaus Alla, SJ, hailing from Warangal, Telengana, belongs to the Andhra Jesuit Province. Currently he teaches at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi. He got a Licentiate in Moral Theology from Alfonsiana, Rome, and a doctorate from Boston College, USA. He has presented papers at various national and international conferences and his articles have been published in several magazines that include The Tablet, Civilta Cattolica, and Asian Horizons.