Ever since I had to read A Tale Of Two Cities as a high school freshman, I have mused about the cruel fate given to Sydney Carton, a man I consider not unlike myself, a bit cynical but decent-hearted, tragically unlucky, and of immensely noble character. Recently I was reminded of his tragic final words, “It is a far better thing that I do, then I have ever done. It is a far better rest that I go to, then I have ever known.” It is impossible for me not to weep as I think about those words and what they mean, because they strike a very sensitive personal spot with me, and with my own tendency towards rather noble pessimism, or tragic optimism.
Are we good people because we do good things, or do we do good things because we are good people? It is my firm belief that we are good people because we do good things. Virtue is difficult to find, and we must long practice good deeds while they are difficult and painful before we acquire the habits of righteous conduct, and the habits of righteous conduct must be worn and honed and kept up for a long time before they become natural for us. If we wish to acquire the nature of God, and show it in our conduct, we have a lifetime of difficult and uncomfortable overcoming ahead of it. If we are not struggling and wrestling with our demons, then we are not becoming better people, and not fulfilling our purpose and meaning on this earth.
What inspires people to self-sacrifice? In this day and age, courage and nobility are often mocked. We are like C.S. Lewis’ men without chests, having lived a lifetime of having our better natures insulted and slandered and maligned, only to face dangerous times when everyone wails and complains about the lack of those virtues of self-sacrifice, a willingness to suffer present pain for a better future, and a willingness to deal with difficult and unpleasant matters because of the seriousness of the situation. Unless we have practiced the qualities of nobility, which usually are difficult and painful, we cannot rise to the occasion when we face massive societal crises. We must privately, and in small ways, practice goodness and nobility before it becomes obvious to the rest of humanity.
Once I read a story in a book that I got from my father after his death, called Lionhearts, about Israeli heroes, and one of the stories concerned a Moroccan Jew who, despite the hatred of his group by other Jews, laid down his life as a soldier to put his body on a grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. I cannot remember his name, but I do remember his story, and I ponder it from time to time. Here was a man who was hated and reviled, looked down upon because of his background, and yet he had the nobility to shield other people from death and to take it himself. And that act of nobility, hopefully, helped other people to recognize that nobility is not limited by our superficial physical identities, but is a matter of personal character.
Ultimately, nobility comes from love. If we are only concerned with our own happiness, our own short-term pleasure, we will never come to the point where we can sacrifice for the happiness of others. It is only if we love our neighbor as ourselves that we will be able to do what is necessary for the good of others, even if it causes us suffering and discomfort. Our love of others is shown through our actions–if we say that we care about someone but our actions do not manifest it, we will be shown as liars. All too often we are willing to sacrifice the interests of others for the greater good, but when our own interests are touched, then it becomes unacceptable. But if we have practiced self-discipline and self-denial, then we will be able and willing to look out for the interests of others and not only ourselves.
This virtue comes from practice. No one is born a hero. The talents and abilities we have all can be used for both good and evil. It is our choices that determine where we end up. It is the way in which we learn from our life and use our experiences to fuel our passions that determines whether we will be consumed by anger and vengeance or by a fire for justice and righteousness. It is how we choose to respond to the crises and trials of our life that determines whether we are good or bad. The more practice and encouragement we have, the more we can translate our knowledge of what is right into action, and the more our actions can become second nature, so that we do not have to think or agonize about doing the right thing, but rather do it automatically and instinctively. Obviously this takes a lot of time and effort, but that should be our aim, to be good by nature, and not merely by extreme effort.
But in order to reach the point where we are noble people, genuinely good people and not merely pretending to be so, we must be willing to take the time and effort to do so, and to practice nobility and moral courage in the little moments where we think that no one is watching. As someone who cares deeply about nobility of character, I hope that I am a fair model of it, for all of my flaws and imperfections, and not a total hypocrite who only preaches goodness without practicing it myself. But being very hard on myself, I suppose I am not the best judge of my own virtue. I hope my heavenly judge will be a merciful one when I reach that far better rest than I have ever known. Then may it be worth this life that I have lived here and now.