Working at being good

There was a line I read yesterday in Run With the Horses, Eugene Peterson's study of the Book of Jeremiah, that really resonated with me.  He begins by setting the stage:

"It is enormously difficult to portray goodness in an attractive way; it is so much easier to make a scoundrel interesting... In novels and poems and plays most of the memorable figures are either villains or victims.  Good people, virtuous lives, mostly seem a bit dull.  Jeremiah is a stunning exception: The complexity and intensity of his person captures your attention.  The captivating quality in the man is his goodness, his virtue, his excellence.  He lived at his best." 

And here's what caught my eye: "His was not a hothouse piety, for he lived through crushing storms of hostility and furies of bitter doubt.  There is not a trace of smugness or complacency or naivete in Jeremiah -- every muscle in his body was stretched to the limits by fatigue, every thought in his mind subjected to rejection, every feeling in his heart put through fires of ridicule.  Goodness in Jeremiah was not "being nice."  It was something more like prowess."

This line first hit me because when I looked out the window after waking up yesterday, there was a heron on the beach, not far from my window.  I greeted him quietly and then headed down to the coffee pot, but I noticed that one of the thoughts that passed through my head was a sort of pride that he was on our beach.  ICK -- what was that about?

By the time I got downstairs -- having only been up a few minutes -- I was already flagellating myself for thoughts that embarrassed me.  So when I read "every thought in his mind subjected to rejection" I GOT it.  It's HARD trying to be a good person; it's NOT always the easy way, nor does it come easily -- if it did, I probably wouldn't read the kind of books I read: I'm always looking for help because I'm always trying to get better at being good.I have lots of thoughts I'm not proud of, lots of opportunities to get better at this trying to be good stuff.  And some days it's exhausting, like running a race.  I'm not exactly an exercise fanatic or good at sports, so it felt good to hear that word, "prowess" applied to this kind of work.  Yeah, I'm working out every day -- it's just that the only weights I'm trying to lift are my thoughts and intentions.

So then I tried to paint -- and it was the struggle it always seem to be, worrying about each addition of color -- is the color the right color?  What sort of shape should it occupy, and how do I achieve that shape? What if I wreck it?  And then something I did was too much too strong for the rest of the picture, and I thought, well, I'll try gesso again; that seemed to work yesterday -- only it didn't, so I kept trying, and wiping off, and trying again, adding, subtracting... all the while thinking "there's nothing I can do to save this, I've wrecked it, why do I even bother I'm clearly not good at this -- every thought subjected to rejection, every feeling of "let's try this" put through fires of ridicule...

So in a lot of ways, I see now, being a good person is challenging in the same kind of way that painting a good painting, or writing a good book, or composing a wonderful song is challenging.  We have to keep moving toward completion, which involves a continual making of choices, a continual search for what would be the right thing to do next to bring this particular exercise to fruition.  And, in fact, you're never quite there: we're rarely if ever the sort of masterpiece to which nothing can be added or subtracted.  There's always something that could be better, that should be painted over, removed, redone or replaced, something that needs to be tweaked...

I finally arrived at the image you see above.  It's better than its previous iterations, more balanced, not overwhelmed any more by the sudden blob of navy that took over the right side of the picture.  But it's also not perfect.

But then, neither am I...


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