CATEGORY: COL Columns (Journal)
HED: 'Good' and 'happy' don't always go hand-in-hand
By Lloyd Gray
Tony Campolo had much to say that was thought-provoking during his trip to Tupelo last weekend under the sponsorship of the Greater Tupelo Ministerial Association.
As a parent, though, the one that hit me squarely in the face was his assessment that unlike parents of old, we care more today about our children growing up happy than growing up good.
He was talking about more than good personal conduct. It's important, of course, that our children study hard, do well in school, display good manners, go to church, respect their elders, abstain from sex and drugs, and generally follow all the rules laid out for acceptable behavior and responsible citizenship. But by growing up good Campolo meant more than these things.
He meant living a life that is focused on service to others. Being a Christian preacher, he put it in explicit terms, quoting his mother: "You are here for a reason. You are here to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ."
Which brought Campolo to possibly the hardest-to-hear truth in contemporary America: being good in this way sometimes means you won't be happy at least as we have come to define happiness.
If happiness means having our needs and wants come first, we won't be happy all the time if we're good. It's as simple as that. Selfless service exacts a price.
He used a dramatic illustration. A colleague at a seminary where he taught had reached the pinnacle of his professional career, providing leadership that had lifted that institution from mediocrity to a lofty position of respect. His wife developed a severe case of Alzheimer's. He quit the job he loved as head of the seminary to take care of her, even though he could have afforded the best caregivers.
Many people, including Campolo, tried to talk him out of it, telling him his continued leadership was vital. "She doesn't even know who you are anymore," Campolo quoted himself as saying. "Yes," the man responded, "but I know who she is, and she is the same woman I married." He had made a promise to be with her in sickness and in health, until parted by death, and he was going to keep it.
"Was he happy?" Campolo asked. "I don't think so. Was he good? Yes." Maybe we need fewer examples of good leadership and more examples of how to be good, Campolo suggested.
That the generation entering adulthood today and the one coming behind it probably wouldn't consider doing what that man did is not necessarily their own fault, Campolo surmised. Not when they are reared to put their own desires at the center of their lives.
The culture doesn't help. Children and adolescents are constantly bombarded with messages to satisfy their own wants first, from the most obvious to the more subtle. Even the pitch to get a good education is most often couched in terms of finding a good job that will pay you more money so that you can buy more things. Today's culture provides very little encouragement for kids who want to dream about a vocational calling of more enduring significance and value.
Ironically, as Campolo points out, increased parental emphasis on the uninterrupted happiness of children has produced one of the least happy and most disturbed generations in history.
Pop psychology and the culture in general have convinced us that we are entitled to happiness, and we parents busy ourselves with trying to make that happiness a reality. That often means overindulging wants. While attempting to convey our love, we sometimes are reluctant to teach one of the most important lessons a child can learn: that he or she, while a unique and infinitely valuable creation, is not the center of the universe.
The quicker children can learn that dual truth, the more likely they are to become "good." And ultimately, the greater the chance their lives will be happy in the deepest and most profound sense.
Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal.