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A False And Pernicious Ideal

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A distinguished television personality has complained that Ten Commandments are far too many. He wants the number to be reduced to one: “Don’t hurt anybody.” This sentiment fits nicely into the national phobia of offending anyone or making anyone feel bad. What seems to be a kind and humanistic ideal, however, is really not only false but pernicious.
Take the case of eight-year-old Stephanie Templeton. She is a third-grade student at a Toronto elementary school. Considering her tender age, she exhibits a remarkable and most admirable sensitivity to the needs of others. During a canned-goods drive conducted over the Christmas Season at her school, Stephanie was most eager, in her father’s words, “to help people who are suffering without food.”
Unfortunately, Stephanie’s empathy and generosity clashed with her teacher’s brand of political correctness. When Stephanie brought in six more cans, her teacher sent her back home with them because the third grader’s display of generosity was “making other students feel bad.”
We should not want to make anyone “feel bad.” But sometimes people feel bad without justification, such as when a student feels bad that a colleague received an A+ on an essay. Virtue should be admired, not used as an occasion for envy. And we should not forget that envy is sadness over another’s good fortune. Little Stephanie is indeed fortunate that she has an abundance of virtue, but it should not be the cause of sadness among her classmates.
The excessive concern about not making others feel bad (although in this instance, it is somehow politically correct to make Stephanie feel bad) can discourage a person from being good. But uniform mediocrity can hardly be a moral ideal. Stephanie’s case exemplifies a pernicious attitude that is becoming more prevalent in today’s society: that excellence should not be achieved if it makes others envious. As a result, envy, long known as the second most virulent of the Seven Deadly Sins, is accorded the power to trump virtue.
In some sectors of education, so that the A student does not make the B student “feel bad,” everyone passes with the unenviable grade of “Pass.” In sports, so that winners do not make losers feel bad, a policy has emerged that awards everyone a medal. It is simply assumed that those who come in second-best can never admire those who finish ahead of them, but will inevitably be locked in a dark mood of bitter envy. Thus, the strategy is developed to avoid envy by forbidding the celebration of excellence.
Reality teaches us that we have varying abilities. Some of us are obviously more musical, or more athletic, or more intelligent, or even more virtuous than others. Education should teach people to admire those who, in certain ways, outperform us. In this way, students would be given a crucial lesson in character education. It takes character to admire those who can outshine us. No person of character should feel glum over another’s accomplishments.
It is most commendable that students be encouraged to cultivate the virtues of empathy and generosity. But those virtues will be under assault unless a third virtue, humility, is not similarly prized. The humble person will be able to admire the superior talents or more generous giving of others. The proud person, on the other hand, the one who lacks humility, will be envious and allow himself to be saddened by not being number one in everything. The humble person rejoices in the achievements of others; the proud person is saddened by them. Humility stands on guard to honor and reinforce the virtues of empathy and generosity.
Perhaps Stephanie’s teacher, instead of humiliating her and creating an embarrassing incident for herself and her school, should have said the following to her impressionable third graders:
“Dear boys and girls, isn’t it wonderful that our Stephanie was able to be so helpful to the people who are hungry? Not all of you are in a position right now to be equally helpful, but I am sure that all your hearts are in the right place. I believe the day will come for each and every one of you, when you will be able to do good things for others. We should always admire good actions. In this way, we are more likely to imitate them. The only time you should feel bad is when you are not doing as much as you should. So please don’t let the excellence of others ever make you feel bad. Your day will surely arrive when your own excellence will shine for others to see and to put into practice.”
It is surely better to praise virtue. But this praise should be accompanied by discouraging envy. By no means, however, should one person feeling bad triumph over another person doing good.

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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)

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