It's not always easy to tell right from wrong.
In fact, learning to recognize the difference is one of the
most important responsibilities facing each one of youand
it is something you have to do throughout your life.
This Youth Update has to do with why
and how you should educate yourself about right
and wrong. It also offers some examples of how some people
your age have short-circuited their moral education, or distorted
their ability to tell right from wrong. Finally, it offers
you some questions to help you to know how sincere you are
about learning right from wrong.
Why be good?
Sometimes learning to choose the good doesn't
sound like a very exciting alternative. So why bother? Does
experience or wisdom prove that people who try to be good
do in fact get ahead in life? Haven't you heard the saying,
"Nice guys finish last"? Haven't you heard at least
one recent reminder that "You have to look out for yourself"?
If this is such a dog-eat-dog world, aren't people who try
to be good just setting themselves up? Surely, you'll just
be taken advantage of by those who make it by using
other people, right?
Imagine yourself in a class where a lot of people
cheat and don't seem to get caught. What do you gain by being
honest, yet ending up on the lower end of a dishonestly inflated
Some people say that being good means "turning
the other cheek." But can you be kind and forgiving,
yet avoid being the world's doormat?
Is being good simply a good investment in a
well-planned future? Many people have indeed thought so. Some
have seen wealth as a sign of God's favor, evidence that you
lived a moral life, proof that you were a good person. Yet
the Old Testament reports the story of Job, a good man who
lost everything. And flood, earthquake and famine hurt innocent
children as well as seasoned criminals.
Where does this leave us? If good people don't
necessarily win, neither avoiding pain and suffering nor becoming
instant millionaires, why should you want to be good? Will
you be happy? This last hope is little comfort when you remember
good people right in your own neighborhood who have suffered
quite a bit, and good people around the globe who are just
as desperate as some who don't seem to be that good. Bad things
do happen to good people.
Yet good people, it seems to me, are free people.
Perhaps "good" doesn't sound very free to you. Aren't
good people, you might say, the ones who do what they should
rather than what they would enjoy? Don't bad people have
more fun than good people?
So I come back to my question, which may be
yours too: Why be good?
Is being good any fun?
This simple-sounding question seems to defy
a simple answer, but I'm willing to try. I know you have struggled
with these answers yourselves.
As I look at the good people around me and the
choices that they make, I find evidence that they are more
free than those who choose evil. I have noticed that the push
to get ahead is costly. Working long hours just to earn a
promotion, never taking time to have fun, putting success
before friendship doesn't seem very freeing.
And this practice of "turning the other
cheek," returning good for evil and speaking respectfully
to someone who has just put you down, doesn't turn out doormats
necessarily. Actually, it seems more likely to produce people
who are not controlled by violence and manipulated by the
actions of others.
The meek and mild Jesus turned the other cheek,
and his life and work threatened the whole religious establishment
of his time. Martin Luther King, Jr., practiced nonviolence
and struck fear into the hearts of racist politicians, law
enforcement officers and weapon-wielding rioters.
The good do not automatically receive fat paychecks.
Nor do they have any special safeguards against pain. But
Ginny, whose salary is reasonable but not excessive, knows
that she isn't taking from someone in greater need. And Bob's
pain at being cut from the basketball team has helped him
to be in touch with those who have been cut out of other activities
at school because of their appearance, their skills, their
friends or their background.
And Sarah's genuine inside-out goodness comes
from being in touchwith herself, with others, with God.
Her sensitivity has led to deep involvement in the lives of
others. I've heard her say, "Wow, Ted, I heard you made
it through that chemistry exam. Terrific!" And boredom
is a stranger to Sarah because of this caring, this appreciation,
this willingness to get into the tough times with others at
school and on her afternoon job.
When Fred is bored, it's not from being "good."
I've often noticed it's because he's spaced out, moping around
because no one's bothering about him. He thinks it's
because his folks keep a tight rein and he doesn't get to
go to any of the wild parties in town. But I think his total
focus on himself and potential fun times makes him a pretty
boring person. He would be a much freer person if he didn't
focus only on himself.
Unlike Fred, who continues to be bored, Ginny,
Bob and Sarah find that making good choices, being good persons
has become a very freeing way of life. Jesus taught us that
the truth will make us free. If we can learn the difference
between what is right and what is wrong, what is worthwhile
and what is superficial glitter, we are on a good track.
To know the true from the false and to have
the courage and discipline to act on that knowledge is to
be on the road to freedom. I say "on the road" because
freedom isn't something that one just has, like a set of car
keys. It is a process, a lifelong process that requires the
help of others as well as effort of your own.
Forming your conscience
Religious thinkers have described this process
of educating oneself about what is right and what is wrong
as the task of "forming your conscience." It is
developing a sensitivity to the goodness or blameworthiness
of choices and a desire to make the choice for good.
You have a responsibility to form your conscience,
to learn what is the responsible and loving choice in the
various arenas of life. Then you have a further responsibility,
out of love for the Creator and the work of God's hands, to
choose out of such knowledge.
I have heard it said that following your conscience
means doing whatever you wantlike when Jack's dad is
fresh out of advice, and says in exasperation, "Well,
then, you'll just have to follow your own conscience."
Jack can't follow his conscience when
he doesn't know what to do. That may be why he asked his dad
in the first place! Jack might also have hoped that his dad
would tell him something easier than what he felt to be a
good choice, which he could then ignore. Haven't you ever
tried for an easier solution than the one you felt was right
in your heart all along?
Or Jack might have wanted to think only of himself
and decide without considering the needs of other people.
He might have been tempted, as we call it, to be completely
Chances are, though, that anyone who cares enough
to ask for help in forming a good conscience won't be self-centered,
stupid, naive and harmful to others or himself or herself.
This formation of conscience requires that you reflect within
yourself, reach out to others (like Jack did) to learn from
them and, finally, place yourself in God's presence, asking
wisdom and insight in whatever matter you are trying to understand.
Badly formed consciences
Just to show what a good conscience is, let
me give some examples of what a good conscience is not. As
I mentioned earlier, this effort to form a good conscience
is worth the struggle because it leads to a genuine, spiritual
freedom. I think the evidence is clear in the examples I now
want to consider.
1. George has a guilty conscience. He
feels guilty about everything. When he's sick in bed with
flu on a Sunday, he feels guilty about not getting to Mass.
When he feels like coming on to the new girl on his block,
he feels like a sinner indeed. Now George has never even spoken
to this new neighbor of his, but his feelings are sinful,
he's sure. When he asked for his jacket back from Jack, who
had had it for a month, he felt selfish and mean. A person
plagued with such false guilt is scrupulous, another word
for a guilt that almost freezes you into inaction.
2. Fran has a flabby conscience. You
know how flabby muscles worknot much, if at all. Fran's
conscience functions in just the opposite way from George's.
She rarely feels any guilt at all. Instead of being scrupulous,
Fran's conscience is lax, or loose. Fran spends Sunday
mornings worshiping at Burger Haven, and prays only that her
car will get her there. She prays that she won't get caught
doing drugs or lifting magazines from the store.
She made fun of Angie when her face was broken
out, and loves to aggravate her teachers, mostly so everyone
will laugh at how clever she is. She seldom has a second thought
about any of this. If Fran had a better developed conscience,
she would experience real guilt, just as George would
feel less guilty.
3. Rhonda has a rationalizing conscience.
Rhonda always finds excuses to allow herself to do what she
wants to do. If she ridicules Angie for her complexion, she
"knows that Angie doesn't care about her looks anyway."
When Rhonda tells a lie, it's "to keep from hurting him."
Or, "I just wanted to make the story more interesting."
When she says something smart, "Fred had it coming to
him!" When she goes all the way with the football captain,
it's O.K. because "I took precautions and, anyway, it
just felt so good." A better sense of right and wrong,
a more informed conscience, exposes such rationalizations,
and makes it more difficult for Rhonda to fool herself as
to her real motives.
4. Larry has a legalistic conscience.
He thinks that being good is a matter of following rules and
obeying laws. The most important thing is to have done what
is required. Larry isn't concerned about love and care and
compassion; religion is reduced to "do's" and "don'ts."
Some of Larry's friends have noticed that, despite his success
at fulfilling the requirements and doing all the things he's
been told, he isn't a very loving person. He seems to be on
the point system with no time for the extras of going out
of his way for others and simply being happy to be called
How do I know that I am doing right?
Many teenagers talk a lot, yet never mention
the things that matter most: your need to love and be loved,
your fear of the future, your questions about your calling
in life, your fear of expressing yourself, your feelings about
your own bodies, your doubts about the Church and God.
Part of learning what is right and wrong is
seeking wisdom about things that really matter and searching
out the answers to these nagging doubts and questions. You
need to work at informing your conscience. Here's a helpful
checklist to see how serious you are about knowing right from
1. Do I really wish to be good? Are my intentions
selfish or for the sake of others? Am I sensitive to ways
I can help and serve?
2. Have I consulted the teachings of Jesus?
Do I know what the Church teaches about the matter? Even more
important, have I tried to understand why the Church teaches
what it does?
3. Have I had the courage to consult people
who impress me as informed, who themselves read and think
about matters of conscience, who would be able to help me
see what is important to take into consideration?
4. Have I taken the time to read, to inform
myself on questions of morality such as abortion, drugs, premarital
sex, and on questions of faith such as who Jesus is, how I
can pray and what sin is?
5. Have I tried to develop my talents, stretch
myself, challenge myself in ways that will allow me to do
what is best for myself, others and God?
Knowing and doing right is challenging, but
I promise you that it is a very freeing life project. Such
freedom is never without cost. You might well experience loneliness,
confusion and even discouragement. Yet to be seeking the good
choice is in some sense to have already found it.
Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk and should
have been an expert at knowing right from wrong, still seemed
to find it hard sometimes. He wrote this prayer in Thoughts
in Solitude. It might help us too as we seek to do the
good: "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain
where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact
that I think that I am following your will does not mean that
I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please
you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire
in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything
apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will
lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about
it." Just wanting to be good is the first step on the
journey toward knowing right from wrong.
Members of Youth Update's Advisory
Board who previewed this issue are Brian Burris, 17; Angela
Parker, 17; Veronica R. Thompson, 15; and Nick Trick, 16.