Why your goodness should disturb you

by | June 9, 2014

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”

This sentence in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity stings my ego like a slap to the face. As much as it hurts, I read it over and over, try to digest it fully.

I continue reading:

“…Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is…You find out the strength of the wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.

“That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it…”

I thumb back to a previous page and re-read:

“When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right…Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”

I’m reeling with the implications: I think I’m a pretty good guy. So what does that actually say about me? How self-deceived am I? How bad must I really be to not recognize and acknowledge how bad I am?

I ponder Lewis’s wisdom in relation to the common self-help advice to love yourself and to only think positive thoughts about yourself.

And as I ponder, I’m reminded of something I read in Jonathan Gottschall’s book, The Storytelling Animal, about the psychological phenomenon dubbed the “Lake Wobegone effect.”

The name comes from Garrison Keillor’s radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, which always ends with the phrase, “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Thus, the effect is “the human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others.”

As Jonathan Gottschall reports,

“90 percent of us think we are above-average drivers. 94 percent of university professors think they are better than average at their jobs. College students generally believe that they are more likely than their peers to graduate at the top of their class, earn a big salary, enjoy their work, win awards, and spawn gifted children. College students also believe that they are less likely than others to get fired, get divorced, behave unethically, have cancer, suffer from depression, or have a heart attack.”

In his book, How We Know What Isn’t So, Thomas Gilovich adds that of one million high school seniors surveyed,

“70 percent thought they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2 percent thought they were below average. In terms of ability to get along with others, nearly all students thought they were above average, 60 percent thought they were in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent thought they were in the top 1 percent.”

I wonder: Is the Lake Wobegone effect a helpful form of optimism, or a crippling form of self-deception?

And then the insight comes: No matter which, whether it’s optimism or self-deception, it’s a case of us focusing on ourselves. And to improve ourselves — no matter how good we think we are or how good we actually are — the process is always to get outside of ourselves.

What matters isn’t what we think of ourselves, whether we’re being merely positive or grossly self-deceived. What matters is the value we create, the service we perform, the pain we alleviate, the problems we solve for other people.

We don’t have to wallow in the recognition of our badness — that burden has already been borne for us. Neither should we pat ourselves on the back as we overestimate our capabilities and achievements.

Our happiness and self-worth are not about us being bad or good, as estimated in our own minds. They’re about being valuable to other people. The measure of our worth, the primary determining factor of our happiness, is our service to other people.

And focusing on service is how we overcome both our weaknesses and our self-deception.

(For tools to become more valuable to other people by living your purpose, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

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