The Good Enough To Shame the Great
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Avram Alpert writes,
Ideals of greatness cut across the American political spectrum. Supporters of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and believers in Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” for instance, may find themselves at odds, but their differences lie in the vision of what constitutes greatness, not whether greatness itself is a worthy goal. In both cases — and in most any iteration of America’s idea of itself — it is.
The desire for greatness also unites the diverse philosophical camps of Western ethics. Aristotle called for practicing the highest virtue. Kant believed in an ethical rule so stringent not even he thought it was achievable by mortals. Bentham’s utilitarianism is about maximizing happiness. Marx sought the great world for all. Modern-day libertarians will stop at nothing to increase personal freedom and profit. These differences surely matter, but while the definition of greatness changes, greatness itself is sought by each in his own way.
Alpert contrasts the foregoing philosophies with a philosophy of “good-enough” — a worldview that embraces the banal and the everyday. Rather than striving after greatness, he argues, we should strive “not to make the perfect human society, but rather a good enough world in which each of us has sufficient (but never too many) resources to handle our encounters with the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.”
To my ears, embracing limitations and accepting “inevitable sufferings” pretty near echoes a theology of the cross — theology which seeks to know God as he’s revealed and present in Christ’s suffering, and, by extension, our own. Just as he suffered on a commonplace instrument of torture, so God embraces the “the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity”. In contrast to our desire for greatness, St. Paul writes,
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26-28)
He chose what wasn’t even good to shame what is great (or, what we might call “great’).
But the mere recognition that I ought to be content with a “good-enough” world doesn’t guarantee that I will be. Although the stated goal isn’t the “perfect” human society, “sufficient (but never too many) resources” sounds suspiciously near perfect to me. “Good enough” can mean different things to different people — and can become another law that will invariably reveal how we’re falling short.
That’s not to say that striving to improve our local or global neighbors’ circumstances is vanity. Arguably, working to alleviate suffering is one of the primary ways Christ’ manifests his workmanship in us (Eph. 2:10). But at a personal level, I’d argue even our attempts to embrace good-enough-ness can lead us to strive after our own greatness. While we may indeed find good-enough solutions to social and economic problems, to bring justice and peace in some way “on earth as it is heaven,” we can still find ourselves asking who will be greatest in the kingdom (Matt. 18:1). If we are Christ’s workmanship, and our good works are prepared for us beforehand, then any “good-enoughness” we might add to the world is in spite of our nothingness and not-so-greatness.
I assert great-or-good-enoughness and I am brought to nothing. I wax semi-knowledgeable about how to fix California’s homeless crisis, but I don’t even make eye contact with the regular vagrants near my office. I say people who worry about money should just learn to budget, but an underestimated electric bill triggers an anxiety attack. I start the workday determined to complete a litany of tasks and prove my technical prowess, and a bug in one overlooked line of code consumes my whole afternoon.
Thankfully, it is in my nothingness that I am given something — the grace of God, who “is the source of [my] life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). The Son of Man “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28), including not-so-great servants.
Despite my feigned greatness, God’s mercy is more than good enough.