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Goodness Is Not Boring

May 27, 2024


What does goodness look like—and do we find it attractive? The Oxford English Dictionary gives, as its first definition of ‘goodness,’ “The quality of being morally good; virtue; worthiness.” Each of these defining words has the same problem of connotation: although moral goodness, virtue, and worthiness are (at least in theory) desirable qualities, are they truly attractive, or—if we carefully scrutinize our reactions—do they have a certain aura of tediousness, of duty rather than joy? If we are invited to dinner with someone described as virtuous and worthy, do we think immediately “Great! I bet that person is fun to hang out with!” or “Bummer. I’m in for a dull evening”?  

The basic problem is that all too often, ‘goodness’ is associated with being dull. I see this regularly in discussions of fiction-writing, in which a standard recommendation for developing characters is that they should have faults. It’s certainly useful for making characters more realistic, but that’s not always the rationale: often the reason writers are told to make their characters flawed is that otherwise they will be boring

We see this misunderstanding in the joking-but-revealing remark that “all the interesting people will be in hell.” On a related note, many faithful Christians are troubled by something they find hard to confess: the fact that they don’t really look forward to eternal life in heaven because they are afraid, deep down, that it will be rather dull. In fact, it can cause a serious crisis of faith: if someone does find the idea of heaven boring, he or she may conclude that this means they are wicked people—or that God is not, in fact, desirable.

Confusion about goodness can also generate a seriously mistaken response to the problem of evil: the declaration that evil and suffering are valuable because we can’t properly appreciate goodness unless we have a contrast. This is nonsense. If it were true that we can’t appreciate goodness without having contrast, it would be prudent to deliberately put a dead bug in your ice cream, because that will make you appreciate the non-buggy mouthfuls more. No, thanks! 

Goodness is lived out in very ordinary ways: not a dramatic martyrdom, but the good-humored acceptance, day by day, of essays to grade, diapers to change, or paperwork to do.

And indeed, this view that we can appreciate goodness more if we’ve experienced the opposite doesn’t even hold true consistently. To be sure, sometimes the experience of evil and death can make us more fully aware of the good things in our lives and grateful for them, but this is something that arises providentially in some instances. In contrast, consider what happens when people experience hurt and betrayal in their closest relationships: it can make them more grateful for stable and wholesome relationships, to be sure, but more reliably it makes them mistrustful and less able to have positive relationships. 

It’s not sin that makes people interesting and distinctive, but rather their different personalities; it’s not their faults that make them fun to be with, but their virtues. The more virtuous someone becomes, the more they radiate and encourage love, joy, and peace—the fruits of the Spirit. And indeed we see this in the witness of mature Christians: the more sanctified a person is, the more he or she is able to resist temptation and live as Jesus calls us to live, the more attractive that person is.  

It’s certainly the case that in books, films, and television, it’s hard to find thoroughly good characters who are also interesting, but this, I would argue, is because we are carrying unnecessary and unhelpful baggage about what it means to be ‘good,’ not because goodness is boring. 

Goodness, in our day-to-day life, is not the same as having perfect judgment or never experiencing any temptations, problems, or difficulties. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, the character of Aragorn—as written by J.R.R. Tolkien—is thoroughly virtuous. But at the beginning of The Two Towers, when the Fellowship breaks up, Frodo and Sam depart secretly for Mordor, and Merry and Pippin are kidnapped by orcs, Aragorn is faced with the difficult decision of what to do in these circumstances. When Legolas declares that he and Gimli will follow him, Aragorn replies, “‘You give the choice to an ill chooser. . . . Since we passed through the Argonath my choices have gone amiss.” He doesn’t know if following the trail of Merry and Pippin is the right thing to do, but he makes the best decision he can in the circumstances, and carries on. The situation is dramatic and interesting, and doesn’t rely on Aragorn doing anything wrong for its effectiveness.

Here, incidentally, we can see a weakness in the otherwise generally excellent Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson. The character of Faramir in the book is not tempted by the Ring: he allows Frodo and Sam to go onward to Mordor, and does not, as in the film, have any inclination to take the Ring to Gondor. Faramir, as Tolkien wrote the character, is a truly honorable and noble figure, who does the right thing without angst. But he’s not a boring character at all—and he has his own difficulties, in that his father, Denethor, treats him as an expendable second-best to his brother Boromir. Dysfunctional families are dramatically interesting in stories, and abundantly challenging to deal with in real life, without needing to make everyone in the dynamic equally flawed. 

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What we find boring and insufferable about apparent ‘goodness’ is, in fact, not goodness at all, but flaws that put on the pretense of being virtues. Someone who will only ever talk about religious subjects and is bringing in “God said this” and “The Bible says that” is being a religious show-off; it’s pride, not piety. As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

Returning to the Oxford English Dictionary, the second definition of “goodness” is of assistance here: “Desire for the happiness of another; kindness, generosity; benevolence, beneficence.” Surely we would enjoy being in the company of friends and family who have those characteristics!  

The lives of men and women of great virtue and holiness, whether formally canonized as saints or not, offer us valuable role models for the Christian life. We should know about them, honor them, and imitate them—and we should make sure that we know a wide range of them. It’s easy to focus on the more high-profile figures: the people who did exceptional things, the missionaries and martyrs, the saints who showed their holiness through persecution and suffering, or those who achieved great things in their lives. These figures are important to know about, but if they are the only instances of goodness and virtue that we take as role models, we can end up with the rather discouraging idea that goodness is somehow necessarily extraordinary, or that it requires exceptional circumstances to bring it out. 

However, most Christians are called to very ordinary lives, without the opportunities for adventure or great missions: goodness on the local scale, shown through marriage, family, friendships, service, the work one is given to do. Most often, goodness is lived out in very ordinary ways: not a dramatic martyrdom, but the good-humored acceptance, day by day, of essays to grade, diapers to change, or paperwork to do. Real goodness is for everyday use, not just for special occasions. 

Goodness is not boring, and—happily!—it can indeed be, with God’s help, completely ordinary.