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Refined Behaviour or Real Goodness?

by Fr Joe Mannath SDB

The poor are often unrefined in their external behaviour; this does not mean they are less civilized or inferior to the more sophisticated. Refined behaviour and real goodness are two very different things. What some people learn in our schools is a better accent, more sophistication, skills to do well in a job interview. This does not mean they have become better persons by studying with us. A poor person may not know how to put on the “correct” facial expression and say (with a cultivated accent), “Oh, I am delighted to see you!” or “What a lovely dress!” and such stuff. But you can see real joy on their face as they see us. They will share their simple meal with us, and insist we eat. They stand by each other in need, as the rich seldom do.

One sad truth we educators and other public figures need to keep in mind is this: The rich basically make use of us, and are not grateful for the services we do. Their general attitude is: “You provided a service (e.g. education), but we paid you for it.” They will not generally tell that to our face, since they will want to get their children, too, admitted in our schools and colleges.

Confusing polished behaviour with goodness of heart can happen in religious formation as well. We can pick up refined table manners, good reading and speaking skills, or charming ways of dealing with people, with no real love for people, or no deep convictions or commitment.

Or in the way we train the young, we can communicate wrong priorities, reading the Gospel correctly can become more important than living the Gospel. I can have the finest accent in the community, as well as the most poisonous tongue. Greeting VIPs in the proper manner may assume more importance than being kind to the poor. English pronunciation can assume greater importance than sincerity or a simple life style.

This danger is all the greater for those of us who teach in the so-called prestigious schools and colleges, where we can easily lose touch with the essentials and forget why we are priests and religious. Or, as lay persons, dressing stylishly or living in a post part of the city or even serving the right foreign liquor at weddings may get more attention than teaching our children right values, or setting an example of a good married life to them. Or we may teach our children subtly or crudely, contempt for the poor and arrogant behaviour towards servants and service people, while we dine and wine the so-called VIPs from whom we seek favours.

Living the Gospel is far more than refined external behaviour or social respectability. Religious training must focus on genuineness, generosity and compassionate availability to the poor, rather than on correct external behaviour. Refinement and polish have a certain importance, but matter little in the larger scheme of things. While they are a part of education – everything from saying, “Excuse me!” or how to blow our nose in public or how to use a knife and fork – we should not confuse these externals with character, nor fall in respect towards those who are less cultivated, because they never had the opportunity.

When I asked a foreign volunteer, a young woman from the US who was doing extraordinary work among the destitute mentally handicapped in Chennai, why they did not look for volunteers among the Catholic college students of the city, she told me they had tried. “They seemed to be more interested in dressing well, or getting to know how to go abroad, than about serving the poor,” she said. If this is true, what is Christian about our family upbringing and about the education we are imparting?

Fr Joe Mannath SDB is a doctoral guide and UGC project director at Madras University and a visiting professor in Chicago.