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Developing a Vision of the Good

April 1, 2024


If I may state the obvious, there is a lot of suffering in the world, a great deal of wickedness, folly, exploitation, and general disregard for the good, true, and beautiful—and our media ecosystem is perfectly calibrated to deliver a constant stream of disturbing and distressing news about this into our daily life. We do need to know about some of this, to be sure, but if we subsist on a steady diet of reports of the evil, false, and ugly, disturbing changes can happen in our psyche. One change that can happen is that we become apathetic and simply accept that this is how things are, and there’s no point in trying to change anything. But another change, more subtle perhaps but no less harmful for that, is that we can become so geared up to fight falsehood and ugliness that we end up seeing the world around us only in terms of what we are against, and not what we are for. 

We should always be able to echo the words of Faramir in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

We must love what we defend, more than the satisfaction of knowing we are defending it; we must love and enjoy what is good for its own sake, not just because it proves the other side wrong or gives us the thrill of being right. The good, true, and beautiful must be real to us, more real than the discourse around it. By living a life that is grounded in these principles, we make them real to ourselves and, therefore, to the people we know. One of the ways that we can cultivate this quality in our lives is through our choice of ordinary activities on a day-to-day basis: the things we do, read, and watch, not just the principles we hold in the abstract. 

The good, true, and beautiful must be real to us, more real than the discourse around it.

On an ongoing basis, one of the ways in which we can keep ourselves grounded in the good, true, and beautiful is to ensure that at least some of what we take in for enjoyment—leisure activities, reading, films, television—presents a vision of the good. 

Some of these habits are, on the surface, very ordinary. Have a meal with a friend or with your spouse; put your phone away—yes, all the way away, not merely set aside on the table—and enjoy a relaxed, leisurely conversation. Don’t take any pictures; just enjoy the time together. Play with your children, or with your nephews and nieces, or godchildren, or your friends’ children. Potter around in your garden (a glorious way of bringing oneself ‘down to earth’) or go for a walk outside; at least some of the time, don’t listen to music or a podcast or anything, just be present with your thoughts and really pay attention to what’s in front of you. This will help you recognize the good, true, and beautiful in your everyday life, among the people you know, not in the abstract, but in the particulars. 

Another helpful way to counteract the sheer negativity of much of what we consume in the news and on social media is to have a regular infusion of what we might (somewhat misleadingly) call ‘light’ reading or ‘light’ viewing. We can recognize ‘heavy’ reading or viewing easily enough: serious, worthy material that engages with important issues and themes, complex and challenging texts. But heavy reading is tiring to the mind, just as heavy lifting is to the body: it does strengthen the mind, as physical effort strengthens the body, but in order to get the most benefit out of it, one must also have rest and recuperation. 

Light reading and viewing can get a bit of a bad rap, as if it were ‘escapist’ and unworthy, but that is to misunderstand the nature of ‘escape.’ Tolkien addresses this in his great essay “On Fairy-stories,” declaring: 

I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used. . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. 

These words are just as relevant today, when each of us can so easily live in prison-cells formed by our awareness of all that is wrong with the world. Do we talk only of jailers and prison-walls? Or do we have a sense of what is outside those walls? What we read and watch should help us to stay connected to the good, true, and beautiful, so that we have a real sense of what goodness is like (not just an abstract quality) and recognize beauty in our day-to-day lives, not just as something ‘out there’ to visit someday.

Let me close with a few recommendations from my own reading and watching, things that offer refreshment of spirit or a vision of what is good, true, and beautiful, in a variety of ways. 


Austenland by Shannon Hale. It’s a homage to Jane Austen, a playful story about a woman trying to come to terms with the fact that no man can live up to her ideal of Mr. Darcy. It’s good fun (especially for those of us who agree that the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice is the best adaptation of the book) and, refreshingly, is a modern novel about romance that is confident enough to refrain from adding any sex scenes. 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Who says that classic novels can’t be read as refreshing light reading? Not me. This is a great book, and one to enjoy. 

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stephenson. It’s a light romance, deftly written, with good characters who are believably good. Reading Stephenson is like enjoying a dessert with whipped cream made from real cream, not artificial stuff from a can: one notices the difference. 


Note that for my TV and film recommendations, I suggest DVDs (or BluRays) rather than streaming. Buy what you really want, and that way you’ll support the production of those projects—and you’ll genuinely own it and can watch it when you want (and lend it to whom you want) rather than being beholden to a streaming service. 

All Creatures Great and Small, with Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot. This series, now in its fourth season, is based on the classic books by Herriot recalling his life as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, which I also heartily recommend. The original books are outstanding (very well written, moving and humorous by turns) and I find the new series to be worthy of them. 


Paddington and Paddington 2. The two Paddington films—yes, about the bear—are a wholesome, non-ironic, absolutely convincing presentation of goodness. It’s a tonic for the spirits. Also, the films, especially the second, are brilliant as films.  

Godzilla Minus One. I went to see this film in the theater out of simple nostalgia, recalling the Saturday Morning Creature Feature films with Godzilla that I enjoyed as a kid. I was stunned by its power as a film: deeply moving and with a powerful theme of redemption. This review unpacks some of those themes (note: this article has spoilers.) 


I hope that these suggestions encourage you to find some refreshment for your mind and soul, and even if my own tastes are different from yours, that this encourages you to find those things that will refresh you.