I was thinking a lot this weekend about doing the right thing, recalling a conversation I had this summer with a 17-year-old neighbor. I was this young woman’s confirmation sponsor and upon discovering that her catechesis was poorly done, I took her out to coffee, the Catechism of the Catholic Church in hand, and tried to play catch up. In those meetings she would sometimes launch into what I like to call the “Things Parents and Other Concerned Adults Really Don’t Want to Know” conversation and as I sat there willing my face to remain neutral, she begged me to tell her why doing right was so hard.
“Sinning is so much more fun,” she confessed, “or at least the people doing it look like they’re having more fun.”
There’s a couple of issues here – one being that folks who are doing right often don’t look like they’re having a good time. But that’s a topic for another post when I don’t have hours of a novel rewrite bearing down on me.
For today, lets stick with the reason doing right is rarely – if ever – easy. For those readers who don’t believe there is a right or wrong or believe there should never be judgment about a right or wrong or believe that life is All About You, now is the time to leave this post and go visit Ask Rita (I LOVE THAT BLOG!) or The Logical Lizard because continuing to read this will only irritate you. Irritation greatly decreases one’s Happiness Quotient so do yourself a favor and read something less frustrating.
Moving on, IMHO doing the right thing is not only difficult, as my young charge observed, it is also frequently exhausting. That is because doing the right thing requires that you think about someone other than yourself. Like the AP investigation about corruption in U.S. border patrol officials or the sign I saw at a branch of the Northwest Fire District, doing right means thinking, “How will my actions affect others?” That step alone can be a pain in the fanny.
It is easier, hands down, to give into any sort of temptation – be it eating a candy bar or answering a text message or taking $1,500 to ignore the van full of pot at your border check point – than it is to take the high road and think long term: If I eat that candy bar, I am filling my body with things that harm my health, even though eating it right now gives me so much pleasure. If I text while driving, I increase the chance that I will main or kill someone, even though I feel I have to text RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE or I might just burst from lack of virtual communication. If I let that van of pot through, I will be contributing to the increasing violence that comes along with the drug trade, even though that money will reduce the stress I have from unpaid bills.
It is, in other words, easier to think just about me and mine than it is to think about you and yours. To think about you and yours, I have to step away from the provincial thought that the only purpose of life is to toil away for me and mine and enjoy it all while I can. I have to move to the next level of seeing humanity as one family and consider the idea that you and yours might need some of what I’ve got too. Not such an easy thing to do.
A friend of mine, who also happens to be a priest, once said that the cause of all moral problems in society – and the cause of so much misery – could be tied to the confusion people have over happiness and pleasure. One’s long-term happiness comes from doing right, while one’s immediate pleasure is often tied to things that, in the long run, hurt the person and others. Think Gov. Mark Sanford and his hormone-induced, adolescent rambling about true love and soul mates and you’ll get the picture. Or, maybe, watch the new Judd Apatow flick, “Funny People.”
According to this review in the NYTimes, Apatow has made a movie that deals with a world “in which doing the right thing comes harder, and bad choices aren’t easily unwound,” unlike his “Knocked Up” and “Forty-year-old Virgin”. Sounds like a show social conservatives would like (in spite of the potty-language), but apparently, that’s not the case, Ross Douthat argues, saying that the poor reviews the movie is getting in some circles is:
… reminder that Americans of all ages tend to like their social conservatism much more in theory than in practice.
More than most Westerners, Americans believe — deeply, madly, truly — in the sanctity of marriage. But we also have some of the most liberal divorce laws in the developed world, and one of the highest divorce rates. We sentimentalize the family, but boast one of the highest rates of unwed births. We’re more pro-life than Europeans, but we tolerate a much more permissive abortion regime than countries like Germany or France. We wring our hands over stem cell research, but our fertility clinics are among the least regulated in the world.
In other words, we’re conservative right up until the moment that it costs us.
So, what do you think? Why is doing the right thing so hard? Why does it seem like the instinctual thing is all about sex and survival (aka reproducing the species and eating)? If it is only just that we are, biologically speaking, little more than animals, then where does the urge to do good come from? And, perhaps most importantly, who’s seen “Funny People” and what did you think of it? Discuss amongst yourselves while I go work on the next The Da Vinci Code.