By Becky De Oliveira—
One thing I really love about people is how hard they try. I love the way we all pretty much get up every day and try to do better than we’ve done before. We’re always making up new goals for ourselves—for our health, our parenting, our work, relationships, betterment. Even for our relationship with God—our role as disciples. We want to do better. People announce that they are going to give up sugar or screaming at their kids. They are going to keep in touch with friends more frequently. Be more organized. Take more steps. Read more books. Learn a language. Save money. Read the Bible. Volunteer their time for a good cause. These are all good things: nothing wrong with any of them. So why does there appear to be an inverse correlation between good goals and what I’ll call “niceness”? When I lived in Berrien Springs, the supermarket contained a natural foods section, and many of my friends and acquaintances used to remark on how interesting it is that the people shopping there always look sick, pinched, and angry.
I’ve pondered the same thing in observing people who spend a lot of time studying the Bible or who manifest other outward signs of spirituality, like paying double tithe or saying really long prayers. Sometimes they’re mean. And sometimes I’m mean—when I decide that keeping toys or clothes off the floor is more important than letting my kids relax in their own home.
I’m not the only one with this problem. My family and I were visiting Disney World in Florida several years ago when the kids were younger, and it rained—a torrential downpour—every day we were there. At the end of each day, we’d pile all our soaked clothes into the bathtub and just leave them there. By the second day, when we’d become veterans at being wet and trying to be cheerful anyway, we overheard another parent, who had apparently not yet embraced this concept, loudly berating his toddler son to stop stepping in puddles. “You’re going to get your shoes wet!” he barked. We fell apart laughing. If you’re in Florida in a downpour and you’re concerned about getting your shoes wet, well, it’s going to be a long day. But, even while laughing, I had sympathy for him. I’ve done similar things. “We’re going to have fun now, whether you like it or not!” It’s very easy to try to achieve one thing and end up with very different results than you’d intended. In fact, it’s hard to do otherwise. Paul’s words to the Romans, “I don’t understand what I’m doing. For I don’t practice what I want to do, but instead do what I hate,” (Romans 7:15, ISV) completely summarizes my life. Is it possible to ever get it right?
Many of us, in our quest for excellence in our personal, professional, and spiritual lives, succumb to various ways of thinking that are harmful to us and to the people we love. They stop us from growing, and they can harm our families and institutions. One that I find interesting is the belief that we must stick to our principles at all times.
Think for a moment about some of the principles that define you as a person. What are they? Would you die on a hill for them? Perhaps you feel that you must. I’ve heard people say they’d sooner be shot than eat a steak. Funniest one I heard was quoted in my Sabbath School class a few years ago. An elderly pastor was quoted as saying, “I’d rather commit adultery than eat pork!” “Who wouldn’t?” was what I said, and there were a few moments of stunned silence before the whole group broke into laughter. But yes, we’re socialized to believe that our principles define us and that breaking them is almost a sin. Or in some cases is indeed a sin. It can even lead to whacked out priorities—like when you profess to be more willing to break one of the ten commandments than to break a dietary rule. Or when anti-abortion activists claim to be such devout defenders of the “right to life” that they’d cheerfully kill doctors who perform abortions in order to defend life.
One of my favorite books—also adapted into an excellent film—is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Its central character and narrator is Mr. Stevens, the longstanding proud and dignified butler of Darlington Hall—a grand English house once owned by the aristocrat Lord Darlington, who was Stevens’ employer until after World War II. Darlington, a Nazi sympathizer, found himself on the wrong side of history and was ostracized by everyone, eventually dying in disgrace. The house was sold to an American—and Stevens has continued his employment in his old age, greatly diminished in his own eyes since he no longer can boast of the dignity his association with a “great man” like Darlington brought.
His state of being is one on which Stevens spends a great deal of time reflecting. What does it mean to be a great butler? he poses rhetorically, developing many thoughts and anecdotes in answer to this question. The question ends up sending him down an endless rabbit hole, because while Stevens is committed—almost to the point of obsession—to dignity and professionalism, these values take on varying definitions throughout the story and often conflict with each other in ways that leave Stevens in a state of almost permanent imbalance as he struggles to redefine his identity in a world that seems to have moved on without him, making his soliloquies about dignity and professionalism seem quaint and irrelevant. The concepts themselves are sometimes mutually exclusive in ways that Stevens seems unable to recognize. This is a man who has sacrificed everything to the abstract concepts of dignity and professionalism. He has failed to connect significantly with any fellow human being. He missed his father’s death, missed a chance for possible happiness with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, and missed the opportunity to achieve a moral victory by speaking out when Lord Darlington, influenced by Fascist friends, dismissed two Jewish girls from his employ—resulting in their almost certain exile back to Germany and to the gas chambers. Over and over again, Stevens demonstrates that if given the choice between being the kind of person he thinks it is important to be and doing the right thing—particularly for another human being—he’ll stick to his principles, thank you very much.
Principles are good so long as the very first one on the list is being flexible enough to let them go if that is what it takes to be a better person in the moment.
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.