By Joe Hogan
Greatness Versus Goodness
Greatness measured by accomplishment and eminence. It is often attained by besting rivals or attaining a degree of fame in a given arena. Great men are known, envied and admired. Great men often become the measuring stick by which others are evaluated. Greatness is something almost all of us desire for ourselves but it is something very few of us obtain.
Goodness is measured in morality and virtue. Goodness is often attained through quiet personal sacrifice that allows others to flourish while the good man remains unnoticed. Good men are often scoffed at or overlooked. Good men are not used as a measurement because the qualities comprising goodness are soft and impossible to quantify. Goodness is not universally desired by society and it is not something most of us typically strive for as fervently as we do greatness. That being said, we all know a good man when we are in the presence of one.
This is not to say that greatness and goodness are mutually exclusive. In my experience, those who score high in one area almost always possess a degree of the other. It’s nearly impossible to sustain the kind of passion required of greatness without also knowing how to love something. It’s equally impossible to fully serve others without a degree of individual excellence.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been great at anything. Above-average? Sure, in more than a few areas I suppose. What matters to me at this point is goodness. I wrestle with the question, “Am I a good man?”
What it Does Not Mean
My life is littered with moments in which I failed to be a good man. For the most part these moments were not born of bad intentions. More often than not they were a product of my conflating goodness with greatness. All too often I attempted to win or overcome in situations where goodness dictated a more passive or cooperative approach. So, before I get to the main point, I’d like to share a few of the traits and habits that have blocked goodness from emerging in me.
Aggressiveness, as a default, is not a mark of goodness. It is selfish and dangerous. Aggressive men seek to dominate others by always taking the “high ground”. Aggressive men leave those around them feeling intimidated and unsure of themselves. I know I’ve stifled valuable contributions from friends and colleges with it. Worse yet, I know I’ve intimidated and stifled my family with it as well. Of course, a good man can and should use appropriate aggression, but aggression by habit kills goodness.
Good men are not contemptuous. Contempt and scorn belittle others and press them below us. Contempt is a way of piling people under our feet so we can climb higher, or at least that is how it feels when we are doing it. But as I age I am coming to realize that the most destructive result of my contempt is that it cut me off from so many people. I wonder how much more goodness I could have brought into my life by spending time listening to and learning from the people I pushed down.
Weakness is never a sign of goodness. Weakness is a lack of resolve. It has little or nothing to do with physical deficits in this context, although many find physical strength to assist them in the spiritual sense. Weak men back away from hardship. They seek the comfortable path. They drop their burdens and make excuses. Of all my regrets in life, my moments of weakness hurt the most.
What it Does Mean?
Good men are flawed. This should come as a relief and sign of hope to us all. Good men are not porcelain saints. They are real human beings who bear scars and warts accumulated over years of struggle. A good man has likely fallen and gotten up more times than he can count and he knows he is likely to fall again. I’ve known good men who were alcoholics. I’ve known good men who’d destroyed their marriages. I’ve known good men who had disgraced their vocation. But they had made peace with their sins and failures by owning them. They did not hide from the pain and disappointment their actions had caused. They allowed themselves to be exposed as broken and guilty, and they drove on. They allowed others to know of and learn from their mistakes and illuminate hope for the rest of.
Good men have empathy. Just as they are flawed, they accept flaws in others without undue judgment. A good man takes no pleasure in the struggles and failures of another because he knows how bad it hurts and how easily he can find himself there again. I once had a grizzled paramedic partner, 20 years my senior. Rick had seen it all, twice, but displayed remarkable compassion, particularly to the addicted and the lonely. He’d survived too many of his own mistakes to hold himself above the people who needed the most mercy. We once spent hours at the hospital, late into the night, because Rick had promised a teenage overdose patient that he’d help her talk to her parents. I didn’t understand why he was “wasting our time” at the moment. It dawned on me later, as my own regrets mounted, but I never took the time to thank him for his example. The first time I mentioned it was in his eulogy.
Good men are loyal. My grandfather was a WWII paratrooper and small-time pro boxer. As his family grew he hung up his gloves and made a career in a union print shop. When his son grew his hair long in the late 60’s many of Gramp’s conservative co-workers began to quip about it. His response was to grow his signature flat top out until his hair was below his collar. When my grandmother related the story to me years later Gramp just chuckled and said, “My son was a good boy and I figured that was the fastest way to shut them up.” He stood by his son, even if it meant going toe to toe with his shop. Good men don’t cut ties when they become inconvenient. Good men know loyalty means climbing in your foxhole with you.
Good men are strong. Good men know strength lies in vulnerability. Just as a brutal session in the gym has to weaken you before you grow, so do trials in life. Good men have stepped into difficulty again and again to build their spirits and souls. Good men show their strength by sharing other’s burdens, by making others’ lives more secure, and by admitting their faults. They have built the spiritual muscle to lift others up, knowing that it is harder than pushing others down.
Good men introduce you to your own goodness. This may be the quality above all others that defines a good man. We’re all going to die, sooner than we want to think about. Some who have achieved greatness will be remembered for a while. Some great men may even have things named in their honor but most of us will be remembered by only a few. Even among those who remember us, our legacy fades. For example, who among us can readily name all eight of their great grandparents? What lives on is the goodness we bring out in others. My father had a habit of gifting the children he knew with an ordinary pocket knife. In doing so he was signifying that they were trustworthy and competent. He had a solemn way of doing so that made a boy feel as if he were a knight bestowed with a mighty sword. The knives held no inscription or specific instructions. They were simply a sign that he believed in you. Those are the ripples we send out into the world. They don’t carry our name or our image because our goodness is not ours at all. We don’t create it and we don’t own it. Goodness is something that we accept and pass on humbly.
Am I a Good Man?
I lost a beautiful wife to cancer days after our daughter had turned 13. In the aftermath I stumbled about, trying to rebuild our lives and entered into a hasty marriage. I had not even begun to come to grips with my loss and had no idea how to assist my teenage daughter through hers. My young adult son was completely on his own. Bringing a new spouse into the situation was unfair to everyone and ended disastrously. We were divorced in less than a year, and then I began my real free fall. All the structures I had used to uphold my own goodness had dissolved. My wife was gone, my religion had lapsed and my outlook had become deeply cynical. I provided a nice home and a private education to my daughter but was emotionally absent. I had lost myself and had forsaken my most sacred duty. I eventually found some stability and a loving relationship with a good woman, but those years are gone forever.
I share this to demonstrate how a man can come to terms with his own ugliness. I will never be able to fill the gap I left in my children’s lives or restore my personal reputation, but I’ve made peace with that. I am an imperfect man, now married to an imperfect woman and we’re the proud parents of four imperfect children. We hold no illusions that any of us will lead storybook lives but we strive to show that the path to redemption is always open. I try to be open about my past. I try to judge others gently. I try to hold my own burdens and lighten the burdens of others. I’m not ready to say, “Yes, I am a good man.” but I know I am capable of goodness. In the end, all we can do is pass that goodness along anyway. It was never ours to begin with.