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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Why it's Hard to be a Better Person

When you think about it, we Jews have wonderful holidays, celebrating goodness, giving thanks to G-d for...everything.  And at this time of year, we Jews are supposed, during our High Holidays,  to do much introspection on our moral selves, our character, and our lives.  We are supposed to make serious efforts to change for the better. 

Well, have we? Have we consciously worked on it? Did you become a better person than you were last year? Have I?

Dennis Prager has a very interesting take on why most of us have trouble doing that.  He has come up with 13 reasons - stumbling blocks, if you will - preventing us from become morally and ethically better human beings.  The one that surprised me was Number One: we don't really want to be good people.  Read the first four reasons below.  Then click on the link, and read the rest.  As someone said in a song (see previous post), it ain't gonna be so easy.

1. Most people don't particularly want to be good.
The biggest obstacle to people becoming better is that you have to really want to be a good person in order to be a better person, and most people would rather be other things. People devote far more effort to being happy (not knowing that goodness leads to increased happiness), successful, smart, attractive and healthy, to cite the most prominent examples.

2. Confusion exists about what goodness is.
Goodness is about character -- integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people.
Not everyone agrees.
For thousands of years, more than a few religious individuals have regarded goodness as being more about sexual behavior and religious piety than about character and the decent treatment of others. And while sexual behavior and religious piety are important, they are not as important as simply acting decently toward other human beings. That is what God wants most (see Micah 6:8, for example) and what we should want most.

At the other end of the spectrum, to modern progressives, goodness is all too often about having the correct political positions, not about character development.
 3. Goodness is not about intentions.
Very few people have bad intentions. Even many people who commit real evil -- such as true-believing Nazis, Communists, and Islamists -- have good intentions. But as an ancient Jewish dictum put it, "It is not the thought that counts but the action." Good intentions alone produce good people about as often as good intentions alone produce good surgeons.

4. We don't learn how to be good.
Even if you want to be a good person, where is the instruction manual? Where are the teachers, the coaches and the schools? People spend years studying how to be good at everything -- from sports to medicine to plumbing -- except how to be good people.



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