August 26: Happy Birthday, Mother Teresa!
Being good doesn’t mean that one has to be perfect.
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“A beautiful death is for people who lived like animals to die like angels.” — Mother Teresa, born August 26, 1910.
There are two different and incompatible views about what it means to be good, and how we should go about it.
The first is the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader model. The light/dark dichotomy. This is the idea that some people are either by their nature or by choice and training good. They are always bright and shining beacons of human goodness. They are so far above us normal mortals that they are not even tempted by the evil forces that have all us normal sinners in their grip. We all know the names of the most prominent of them: Jesus and Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Francis of Assisi, and, yes, Mother Teresa.
Opposed to the bright side, in this view, is the dark side: the Darth Vaders and Donald Trumps of this world, the dictators, manipulators, bullies. Those who destroy the environment, who call global warming a hoax, who drill for oil in the Arctic, build nuclear weapons and eat puppies. Them. Hitler, Kim, Gaddafi.
The problem with this whole approach to human goodness is that it makes it too easy to see oneself as outside of this dichotomy. How can I measure myself with the same criteria as Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa? I am no Luke Skywalker, I am no hero, no saint, and therefore their moral demands don’t apply to me. If anything, our everyday moral compass is closer to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. We’re getting by, living our lives, doing the best we can with the cards that fate has dealt us.
The second approach to morality, which is a lot more fashionable at present, is total moral relativity. Since we can never be sure what is really good and bad, then perhaps there isn’t any difference between the two. Perhaps good and bad are only a matter of taste, just like (according to many) truth. Perhaps there are multiple goods and bads, even incompatible ones, and everybody can just inhabit his or her own moral bubble.
Mother Teresa was wrong about many things.
This cynical approach just covers up our own moral bankruptcy. The Darth Vaders of this world would very much like this to be true. Nothing pleases a crook’s conscience more than such moral relativism. If nobody knows what’s good and bad anyway, we can go on driving cars, polluting the oceans and profiting from poverty and slavery in the developing world. Ridiculing the distinction between good and bad is just the way to justify any behaviour. If nobody knows what is good and bad, then companies like Monsanto and Shell can come along and rule us and we won’t have a reason to oppose their rule.
But Mother Teresa (and the others in our list of moral heroes) show us another, a third possibility.
One can reach almost unimaginable heights of human goodness and sacrifice, and still be very very human; very much failing and incomplete and a sinner. But at the same time, a saint.
Is abortion morally right? We look at the main arguments for and against abortion, considering whether abortion can be said to be murder and whether (or why) the mother’s rights might be considered more important than the fetus.
Mother Teresa was wrong about many things. She was accused of not caring about the poor as much as she did about her mission; of opposing abortion, and thus hurting the poor she wanted to help; of being difficult and demanding to her staff; and she herself often said that she had lost her connection to God. Gandhi was famously very strict in his judgements, lacking compassion in personal relations, and sometimes valuing abstract principles above human sympathy. Einstein had multiple affairs and was (according to his modern biographers) a rotten lover and husband.
Does this mean that these people weren’t good?
We live in an age of extreme simplification and loss of nuance. Increasingly, our moral judgements are black and white, binary like a Facebook ‘like,’ or, as we saw above, simply bleak, devoid of any belief in an absolute good or bad.
But there is something that Mother Teresa and those others on the list of heroes and saints can teach us. It is the fact that human beings are complex. We are not Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no absolute measure for the good and the bad. Mother Teresa shows us that we can acknowledge our own complexity and we can still fight to be good, even if we don’t know what exactly this means. In the end, no mortal man can be absolutely sure that she’s doing the right thing. But we can and must try.
We are human, we are imperfect, we are fallible, we are sinners. The Christian religion has always acknowledged this. Being good doesn’t mean that one has to be perfect. No human can ever be perfect. Being good means that we never give up trying, and role models like Mother Teresa show us that it’s always worth fighting to become a better, truer, wiser human being.