Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Limits to Goodness

Goodness is the only investment that never fails
-        Henry David Thoreau

Goodness is a virtue that is highly valued in our society. ‘Be good’ tells every mother to her child as he sets off for school, ‘do good’ is what we always hear great people say. It is no surprise then that we all aspire to become ‘good’ human beings. And we all like to believe that we are good human beings.

In a book I recently read, the protagonist was faced with a tricky situation in her life. Mulling over this, she realised that ‘there are limits to her goodness. She could have gone through her entire life without knowing these limits.’

Limits to goodness? This phrase made me sit up straight and start thinking …… what does that mean? The more I thought, the more it slowly started making sense to me, and made me wonder: what are the limits to my goodness? Do I know them? I believe myself to be a morally upright, ethically sound, and essentially good person. But just how far does my goodness go? Do I know it? If I am faced with a very real dilemma between what is the right and good thing to do, would I do that right and good thing even if it meant doing irremediable damage to a loved one?

We all think we know ourselves, but every once in a while, Life throws up situations that stop us dead in our tracks, that make us question everything we have ever believed in. Situations that show us a side of ourselves that stuns, and at times, even shocks us. Is this me thinking like this, we ask ourselves.

By the time we are out of our teens, most of us have a fairly stable value system in place. There are things that are key priorities for us, goals that we wish to achieve, and the various means that we are willing to explore or use in order to achieve these goals. We go through most of our lives more or less using this value system implicitly or explicitly. Of course, there will be times when temptation will come our way, and there will be times when we will give in to temptation, abandon momentarily our values, and then do course correction. After all, most of us are mortals with mortal minds and mortal resolves, and we don’t always pass Life’s exams with flying colours. As long as we remain aware and open, we can assimilate these experiences without too much difficulty and keep moving forward in Life.

Consider Reena’s situation.

Reena has been a conscientious teacher for over 14 years. She prides herself on her integrity and uncompromising honesty, and has always instilled this in all the children she has taught over the years. One fine day, going through her husband’s computer looking for an important file, she finds irrefutable evidence that her husband has been embezzling funds from the organisation he works for, stealing away hard earned money of the company’s clients. Reena, who has never tolerated any student cheating in exams at school, is now wondering what to do? Her entire moral code recoils at what she has found out and were it anyone else, she knows she would have had no second thoughts turning in the person to the authorities. But this is her husband of 12 years, whom she loves with all her heart. What to do?

Her values and morals would tell her the right thing to do is to report him to the authorities.
But then, what about her responsibility toward her 6 year old child? Is it fair to deprive him of a father?
And what about her marriage? She has loved her husband and they share a good, strong marriage? Is it right to sacrifice everything for the sake of some abstract values?

What seems to me is that, most of us would like to be good. Some of us are almost always good The very notion of ‘goodness’ assumes being good to others. However, when being good to others comes in direct conflict with being good to someone very close to us, that is when our limits get tested. If Reena has to be true to her values and be good to her husband’s clients, then she has to turn her husband in, and then she is not being good to him. Is she? Isn’t she?

There clearly is no one right answer to such moral dilemmas. If you catch your loved one (a parent, a child, a spouse, a close friend) doing something wrong, immoral or bad, what happens to you? What would you do in such a situation? It is a good idea to ask this question to ourselves every once in a while. More than that; it is important not to judge the actions of any other person, for we have no idea what inner battles he or she has fought before doing or not doing certain things. And ….. never know when the tables will turn, and we will find ourselves face to face with the limits to our goodness.

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