Thirteen Obstacles to Becoming a Better Person

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This week, for the fourth consecutive year, I am conducting Jewish High Holiday services. Though not a rabbi, I spent 12 years studying in yeshivas and 35 years teaching and writing on Judaism. The following is a summary of the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) sermon that I gave this past Wednesday night.

The purpose of the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) is moral introspection: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person can I become? So, every year, Jews meditate on the issue of becoming a better person.

But how many of us do become better people the next year?

This question has bothered me for many years, and I have decided to finally address it. Why is it so hard to become a better person?

I have — unfortunately — come up with 13 reasons.

1. Most people don’t particularly want to be good.

The biggest obstacle to people becoming better is that you have to really want to be a good person in order to be a better person, and most people would rather be other things. People devote far more effort to being happy (not knowing that goodness leads to increased happiness), successful, smart, attractive and healthy, to cite the most prominent examples.

2. Confusion exists about what goodness is.

Goodness is about character — integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people.

Not everyone agrees.

For thousands of years, more than a few religious individuals have regarded goodness as being more about sexual behavior and religious piety than about character and the decent treatment of others. And while sexual behavior and religious piety are important, they are not as important as simply acting decently toward other human beings. That is what God wants most (see Micah 6:8, for example) and what we should want most.

At the other end of the spectrum, to modern progressives, goodness is all too often about having the correct political positions, not about character development.

3. Goodness is not about intentions.

Very few people have bad intentions. Even many people who commit real evil — such as true-believing Nazis, Communists, and Islamists — have good intentions. But as an ancient Jewish dictum put it, “It is not the thought that counts but the action.” Good intentions alone produce good people about as often as good intentions alone produce good surgeons.

4. We don’t learn how to be good.

Even if you want to be a good person, where is the instruction manual? Where are the teachers, the coaches and the schools? People spend years studying how to be good at everything — from sports to medicine to plumbing — except how to be good people.

5. We think too highly of ourselves.

Self-esteem frequently runs counter to goodness. Raising children with self-esteem sounds great, but when unearned — which it usually is — it leads to bad results. In fact, it is people who do not have particularly high self-esteem, people who feel that they constantly have to prove their worth, who are more likely to act good. And it is violent criminals who have the highest self-esteem — ‘I am better than others and can therefore do whatever I want.’

6. We think we will be taken advantage of.

Many parents have told me that they fear raising their children to be “too” good, lest they be taken advantage of.

People confuse goodness with weakness. It is weak people, not good people (goodness demands strength), who are taken advantage of.

Yes, bad people take advantage of others. This is why it is so important that good people surround themselves with good people. They allow us to be good and they make us better.

7. There are few personal models.

It is very difficult to grow into a good person without good models — whether a parent, a sibling, a friend, a clergyman, or even good characters in literature and film.

That is why it is so important for all adults to try to be good models — not necessarily friends — to all young people.

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  • Ben

    Dear Mr. Prager! Actions not the words define the good human. Millions of good people died in poverty. Only selfish inventors-capitalists have made them happy (though they hate capitalists). We must correct our selflessness according to positive results of our activity.The idea of fairness is sometimes the dangerouse one.I noticed that terrible criminals often live the long happy life.That is they realised their idea by the successful revenge some people for the injustice of the fate.

    • palidin911


      Is that an example of stream of consciousness?

  • 080

    I have no time to become a better person. I am too busy trying to make everyone else better people.

  • Flipside

    There are only Thirteen obstacles to goodness if you live by the lunar calendar. For the rest of us, it's 12.

    • Axe

      Point 13 did sort of get away from him.

  • palidin911

    As much as I respect Mr Prager. about half of his obstacles are non sense.

  • Alexander Gofen

    A few corrections.

    1) The main obstacle to becoming a better person is an intrinsic misery of the human condition, especially obvious in the West. The West has not ever endured any negative selection like that in the former USSR. The West has degenerated and abandoned God on its own initiative and due to its own baseness.

    2) In order to fill happy because of doing good a person already must be spiritual, but exactly this quality lacks to the contemporary humanity.

    3) Otherwise, doing good is rarely rewording in this world, or worse. During the entire human history the good has been rather punished, and it would never survive in an "unaided process" of "natural selection". The fact that the good did survive is a miracle by itself, perhaps God's providence.

  • jlevyellow

    I am surprised by the reactions to Prager's article, which seem to be essentially opposed to his thesis. Each response reflects Mr. Prager's points, except for some that make little sense (e.g., Flipside).

    Let us be clear! These naysayers have rejected evolution, quantum mechanics, and ordinary decency. Only quantum electrodynamics will garner an explanation: Each situation in life represents a superposition in which all understandings exist at the same moment. Human observation collapses the superposition and defines only one position as "reality." (Heidegger's Cat problem).

    Thus, I would rather have been among the Jews who entered Auschwitz believing that the Germans among whom they had lived for generations were not capable of mass extinction of innocents than among the Germans engaged in the act of destroying people whom they had never met.

    Israel and the religious Jewish community protects altruism and holds it out as a human possibility. Other communities do the same, but all altruism is under attack as naive and self-serving. Far from it! The altruistic inclination saves individuals and communities from despair and regret for being human.

    An example: I recently attended a funeral of an Auschwitz survivor. She was a classically trained opera singer who saved her own life by singing for the German officers including Dr. Josef Mengele when requested to do so. The individual German officers were not allowed to listen to her as a group, but invited her to private hearings in their quarters. During these performances, the brutality associated with each officer was momentarily abated. Thus, her singing gave respite to all the inmates: a blessing among the curses. For these performances, she occasionally received a piece of bread or a piece of potato in her soup. What kind of a world do we want?

  • mrbean

    This guy is a babbling idiot: I will answer each of his points. As for point 1. – just crap based on original sin syndrome being pedalled here. As for point 2. – this was jus evasion to the point of adepends what "is" is agrument. As for 3. – altruism is the basis on all collectivism and is evil and has nothing to do with good intentions which are rationalized evasions. As for 4. – Instruction manual on how to be good? It ain't the bible or koram for sure! As for 5.- First to thine own self be true and you will not be false with anyone. Besides, rational self interest is moral! As for 6. – I always say, a little paranoid is good, if they are really out to get you, As for 7. – There are both good role models and bad role models everywhere. Problem is the modern promotion of non judgementalism except for conservative views As for 8. – Most people do believe in the golden rule and in what goes around comes around. 9. – Redressed original sin crap for man as naturally evil again. As for 10. – Life is unfair so deal with it! Adjust and overcome. PART 1

  • mrbean

    PART 2
    As for 11. – Bad parents exist but most parents try to raise their children to be good people and do want them to be successful as well. As for 12. – So now we have envy of the better looking, the more athletic, and the more popular. It is the smart good kids who study hard and also do community work get the college scholarships and into the good universities, and only very few of the jocks and the bimbos do. And 13 finally, – It is little wonder when progessive education constantly has kids unearned self esteem stroked that they cannot learn to deal with life and reality. Like I said in 10. Life is unfair and you don't always win, so deal with it! Adjust and overcome.

    • jlevyellow

      Or, mrbean, are you the one who would sooner hack someone to death than suffer such a fate yourself.

      Try more thoughtful responses next time.

  • jlevyellow

    mrbean wrote (inchoately), "10. Life is unfair and you don't always win, so deal with it! Adjust and overcome."

    Is that your response to the Holocaust or other genocidal acts. Would you think the same thoughts as you are being hacked to death by someone who was treating you unfairly?