2016-06-30
Excerpted from "Living a Life that Matters" by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc.

A few years ago, I wrote a book entitled How Good Do We Have to Be? Its basic message was that God does not expect perfection from us, so we should not demand perfection of ourselves or those around us, for God knows what a complicated story a human life is and loves us despite our inevitable lapses. As I traveled around the country talking about my book, something interesting kept happening. Although most people in my audience welcomed the message that God loved them despite their mistakes and failings, in every audience there would be a significant number of people who were uncomfortable with it.

They wanted to believe that God loved them, and other people loved them, because they deserved it, not because God and the other people in their lives were gracious enough to put up with them. They wanted to believe that God cared about the choices they made every day, choosing between selfishness and generosity, between honesty and deceitfulness, and that the world became a better place when they made the right choices. They were like the college student who hands in a paper and wants the professor to read it carefully and critically, because he or she has worked so hard to make it good. The people in my audience felt that they had worked hard to lead moral lives. They might hope that God would make allowances for human frailty, but, like the college student, they would be sorely disappointed by the response, "That's all right, I really didn't expect much from you anyway."

My answer to them when they challenged me was that I believe God speaks to us in two voices.

One is the stern, commanding voice issuing from the mountaintop, thundering "Thou shalt not!," summoning us to be more, to reach higher, to demand greater things of ourselves, forbidding us to use the excuse "I'm only human," because to be human is a wondrous thing.

God's other voice is the voice of compassion and forgiveness, an embracing, cleansing voice, assuring us that when we have aimed high and fallen short we are still loved. God understands that when we give in to temptation it is a temporary lapse and does not reflect our true character.

Some years ago, Erich Fromm wrote a little book entitled The Art of Loving, in which he distinguished between what he called "mother love" and "father love" (emphasizing that people of either gender are capable of both kinds of love). Mother love says: "You are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, and I will always love you no matter what. Nothing you ever do or fail to do will make me stop loving you." Father love says: "I will love you if you earn my love and respect, if you get good grades, if you make the team, if you get into a good college, earn a good salary."

Fromm insists that every one of us needs to experience both kinds of loving. It may seem at first glance that mother love is good, warm, and freely given, father love harsh and conditional ("I will only love you if..."). But as my audiences taught me, and as a moment's reflection might teach us all, sometimes we want to hear the father's message that we are loved because we deserve it, not only because the other person is so generous and tolerant.

People need to hear the same message from God that children need to hear from their earthly parents. Just as it is an unforgettably comforting and necessary experience for a child caught doing something wrong to be forgiven and to learn that parental love is a gift that will not be arbitrarily withdrawn, a lesson no child should grow up without absorbing, so is it a vital part of everyone's religious upbringing to learn that God's love is not tentative, that our failures do not alienate us from God. That is why Roman Catholic churches offer the sacrament of confession and penance, why Protestant liturgy emphasizes that the church is a home for imperfect people, and why Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for our sins, is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

When we are feeling burdened by guilt, when we know that we have done wrong and hate ourselves for it, we need to hear the voice of God-as-mother, assuring us that nothing can alienate us from God's love. But when we have worked hard to be good, honest, generous people, there is something lacking in the message, "I love you despite yourself because I am so loving and lenient." What is missing is the voice of God-as-father: "You're good, you have earned My love."

I can't tell you how many men and women I have counseled who spent their entire adult lives feeling somehow incomplete and unsure of their worth because they never heard their father tell them, You're good and I love you for it. I once paid a condolence call on a man in my congregation whose father had just died. The funeral and memorial week had taken place in another city, where his parents had lived, and I was the only visitor on his first night home. After several minutes of asking about the funeral and how his mother was coping, I found myself saying, "It sounds like your father was a man who kept his emotions to himself."

The congregant broke down and started to cry. "He never said anything good about me. All my life, I wanted to hear him say he was proud of me for who I was and what I was doing, and all I ever got from him was this sense that he showed his love by putting up with me." He wiped his eyes, apologized for the tears, and went on. "In my head, I know that he had a problem talking about his feelings. In my head, I know he thought his way was the right way to make me do better. But in my heart, I feel so cheated. I always got good grades in school, never got into trouble, went to a good college. I make a good living, live in a nice home, have a wonderful family. Would it have been so hard for him just once to tell me that he was proud of me? And now he's dead and I'll never hear it!"

I tried to tell him that the problem was his father's, not his, that his father was part of an older generation of men who had trouble knowing what they were feeling, let alone putting it into words. I prompted him to remember all the nonverbal ways in which his father had shown love and concern for him. But I don't know how much that helped. My congregant may be a permanent member of that army of men and women who will always feel a little bit incomplete because they never got the message of father love--I love you for what you have made of yourself--and will keep on working and struggling until someone they care about tells them that.

What happens when our need to think of ourselves as good people collides with our need to be recognized as important? Is it possible to do both?

This may well be the central dilemma in the lives of many of us. We want--indeed, we need--to think of ourselves as good people, though from time to time we find ourselves doing things that make us doubt our goodness. We dream of leaving the world a better place for our having passed through it, though we often wonder whether, in our quest for significance, we litter the world with our mistakes more than we bless it with our accomplishments. Our souls are split, part of us reaching for goodness, part of us chasing fame and fortune and doing questionable things along the way, as we realize that those two paths may diverge sharply. Our self-image is like an out-of-focus photograph, two slightly blurred images instead of one clear one. Much of our lives, much of our energy will be devoted to closing that gap between the longings of our soul and the scoldings of our conscience, between our too-often conflicting needs for the assurance of knowing that we are good and the satisfaction of being told that we are important.

The people we find ourselves admiring most tend to be people who strike us as having closed that gap, having resolved that conflict. We examine their lives, not only to gain information but to gain insight as to how they managed to do that, in the hope that we too will be able to gain the two prizes for which our souls yearn.

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