Is 'better' the enemy of 'good'?
Posted: Thu, 04 Feb 2021 16:05
The world of education in particular is driven by unceasing urges to do better. Catholic teacher and Deacon, Mike Bennett, looks at the impact on all of us when we stop valuing what is 'good'. (Image adapted from a cartoon by Bellinon on Pixabay)
At the age of nineteen, I went to live for a short time in the village of Bartrès, near Lourdes. I had secured a gap year position working at Hosanna House, for HCPT (Hosanna House and Children's Pilgrimage Trust). By the time I arrived in mid-June of 1993, I was burnt out and exhausted. My A-Levels were just over, and I did not think I had done well.
The constant dripping-tap sound in my head telling me, 'You could have done better … you should have worked harder … you should have revised more', was, in its own way, a minor crucifixion. Though each statement was partially true, I had worked within my own ability and I had tried. Yet, the fears and doubts were replayed many times. Was I going to be a failure? What a weight to carry at nineteen, when the world really is 'your oyster'. Yet the mantra seemed to be, 'Do better. Be better. Do more. Push yourself harder.'
On a lazy sunny afternoon in my new mountain home—Bartrès is 1000m above sea level—I picked up a book by Voltaire; I had never heard of him. As I read, one of his quotes jumped out at me: 'Better is the enemy of good.' It struck me that my desire to achieve better, to be better, was to miss the good I had achieved and could achieve; that, by projecting into the future my fears of what may or may not happen, I was further denying the good.
So what, you may ask? Well, jumping twenty years on, as a head of RE, I found myself in a state of panic! Basically, I was pushing myself and my department to the extreme. In my own mind, nothing seemed good enough. The internal pressure I was putting myself under was simply too much, and that was being externalised in the pressure I was putting my colleagues under. Yet, the wider educational landscape was using phrases like: 'the rigorous drive for improvement'; 'pushing to the next level on our journey to outstanding'; and 'not being happy to stand still.'
The mood of the day was to push and push hard. At some point, a wise Salesian took me in hand and said, 'Michael, while we love what you are doing and we realise that you want to progress things, remember that "better is the enemy of good".'
Bang! There it was once again. Truth. I walked out of school that evening with a spring in my step and with a renewed outlook.
Like many of us who work with young people, I do not stand still. If my body is not moving, my mind is. I work hard, within my own ability, to provide the best for the young people I serve. Yet, there comes a time when we all have to say 'Stop!' and allow good to be good.
The mantra that we must always be and do better is not healthy, or indeed, helpful! It is, in fact, damaging. If things are not 'good', then change is required. Yet, what is wrong with letting a good situation be good, and simply allowing it to be so until change is required?
It is worth pondering on Genesis, where the Lord looked at what he had created and said it was 'good', in fact, he said it was 'good' five times. Nowhere does he say it needed to be better. If a situation is good, let it be and rejoice in the goodness that you have created. Striving to better the good you have created can destroy, or at least destabilise it!
Those who work in education always want to do things better—I get it, I do it myself—but if that comes at the cost of enjoying the present, we all need to think again. Surely, one of the lessons learned from the pandemic is that life was good. Maybe not great or perfect. But a day of getting away from work, and spending time doing what we loved was indeed 'good'. How many of us would like to have a bit of that back?
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us, 'don't let your hearts be troubled.' So, I pray for the wisdom to see the good in my life and practice. To embrace the good and not see it as an enemy. To appreciate that when things are not good, I'll try my best to change them. And in all things, to stand in the presence of the good and welcome it as a friend.