Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
How many of us when we first meet some new person immediately find something about them to be critical about? Alternatively, we can look at the major news stories in the media over the last few months of 2012 and focus on the overwhelming brokenness graphically depicted: war, super-storms, school massacres and mass killings, to say the least.
However, we do have an alternative. We could try to see the good that is imbedded within the bad. We can see that through all this tragedy some have been encouraging others to remain affirming of hope, fostering optimism and healing, and, most importantly, inspiring others by their own good actions. We have to see that inspiring others is one of the greatest good deeds we can do for those around us.
Doing good for others is certainly not unknown among the world's religions. Buddhist tradition teaches, "Therefore, do thy duty as prescribed; for duty-bound action is superior to inaction . . . .Actions normally fetter the human being but not when they are performed as acts of sacrifice." (Bhagavadgita, 3: 8-9). The words of Gandhi are very meaningful on helping us to focus on the good: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always."i
How can we bring about both seeing the good that others do and in turn reflecting such good in our own lives, and thus animating more good actions by those around us? St. Isaac of Syria tells us it must be a synergy involving reliance on, i.e., trust and confidence in, God united with our own good efforts. He asks: "Do you believe that God provides for His creatures, and is able to do all things? Let suitable labor, therefore, follow on your faith, and then He will hear you. Think not to grasp the winds of your fist, that is, faith without works."ii
One way of doing this is to practice in our own lives the good we see and admire in others. This cannot be done, however, if we focus on the mistakes others make or the evils they have done. A great psycho-spiritual help here is to follow the counsel of Jesus Himself: ". . .first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then thou shalt see clearly to cast out the splinter out of thy brother’s eye." (Mt. 7:5) May I add that Jesus’ words can be extended - realizing that all of us fall short in some way will enable us to see more clearly the good others are doing or mean to do. To do this would be to cultivate in ourselves the virtue of mercy.iii St. Isaac describes this virtue. "Mercy, on the other hand, is sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all."
ii Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (ed., trans.). (2011). The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (revised, 2nd edition). Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery.
iii Mercy is discussed in much greater psycho-spiritual detail by Morelli (2012): www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/smart-parenting-xviii-applying-christs-beatitudes-to-parenting-blessed-are