#28  We Should Never Let the Good Become an Enemy of the Best

JUNE AND I MARRIED the month we graduated from Southwest Baptist University when it was still a small junior college. That fall we moved to Liberty, Missouri, to enroll in William Jewell College. Having very limited resources, we rented a two-room apartment with a shared bath; one room was a kitchen-dinette and the other was a bedroom-study with two desks.

I don’t remember where it came from, but on the wall above my desk I attached a note card with the words, “Don’t let the good become the enemy of the best.” Although I recently found a few places on the Internet where those words are quoted, I have been unable to find where they might have originated.[1] But it makes no difference: they are good and important words regardless of who might have spoken or written them originally.

Those wise words are somewhat related to Rick Warren’s emphasis on the need to be both faithful and fruitful, which we considered in the previous chapter. Even though I indicated less than full agreement with Warren, he does make a valid point: it is good to be faithful, but it is better to be both faithful and fruitful. Thus, the emphasis on faithfulness should not cause us to just sit back, relax, and make few efforts to be fruitful.

Seeking the Best

“Be all you can be” was the recruiting slogan of the United States Army for over twenty years (from 1980 to 2001). Those words are said to be one of the most effective slogans in the history of advertising. Whether joining the army helps young men and women become all they can be is questionable, but the call for becoming the best possible person one can be is definitely a good one.

More than two centuries earlier, John Wesley sought to live by an even more compelling slogan: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”[2] Those words certainly call people to positive action toward being and doing the best they possibly can rather than being complacent.

This line of thought leads to another important idea, which I even considered making a whole chapter in this book: just because we are doing something good that doesn’t mean we are doing all we should be doing. It is so easy for us to excuse additional efforts in some important endeavor or additional giving to some compelling cause by saying that we are already doing something or have already given. Of course, there are limits to what we can do or give. Still, just because we are doing something or have given something does not mean we are doing or giving all that we should. As Wesley emphasized, we need to do all the good we can.

The good becomes an enemy of the best whenever engaging in some good activity becomes an excuse for not doing more when that is possible. Similarly, the good becomes an enemy of the best when making contributions to some good cause becomes an excuse for not giving more when we are able to do that.

For many Christians, the giving of the tithe, ten percent of one’s income, is seen as something not only good but also meritorious. And, to be sure, that is, unfortunately, a much larger percentage than many Christians give to the church and church-related causes. But there are many people who are able to give far more than 10%—and, happily, some do. But for others, the “good” of giving a tithe becomes an enemy of the best, which would be giving 12%, 15%, or even more.

Also, for most Christians, attending a Bible study class and worship services every Sunday morning is considered a good thing to do, and I certainly would not deny that it is, in fact, a good use of one’s time and energy. But if a person has the ability to, say, teach a Sunday School class or to be a part of the founding of a church in a new or a needy section of town, satisfaction with the good being done becomes an enemy of the best if the person uses what is being done as an excuse for not doing more.

“Faster, Higher, Stronger”

The challenge to be and to do the best one possibly can is a permanent part of the world of sports. Since 1894 the words Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” has been the motto of the Olympics.[3] And each time the Olympic Games are held new records are set. For example, at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, 27 world records and 91 Olympic records were set. Amazing!

Other sports records continue to be broken, year after year, also. I still remember what a buzz it caused when Roger Bannister, who died in March 2018, broke the four-minute mile in 1954, when I was a junior in high school. But current runners regularly run the mile in less than four minutes, and at this writing the world record is just over three minutes, forty-three seconds.

In First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it” (9:24). That is a spiritual message tied to a sports metaphor. Just as athletes are not satisfied with the good and are always seeking for the best, so should we be in our religious endeavors. Being content with the good is not enough; striving for the best is imperative.

“To rest on one’s laurels” is an old English expression that means to be content with one’s past achievements and not continuing to strive to excel. In the Greek games of the ancient world, the victor was crowned with a laurel wreath, but a winner could not “rest on his laurels” if he wanted to remain a champion. For those wanting to excel in spiritual matters, it is the same. Contentment must not be allowed to cause complacency. One must “keep on keeping on,” as another old expression emphasizes. Or as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians at Galatia, we must “not grow weary in doing what is right” (6:9).

But on the other hand, striving to be or do the best can cause one to be discontent and disconsolate. An old Aesop fable teaches the lesson, “Be content with your lot, one cannot be first in everything.” In the fable, the peacock petitioned Juno, the Roman goddess, for the ability to sing like the nightingale. Juno replied that the nightingale was given the gift of song, the eagle was given strength, and the peacock was given beauty. They all should be content with what they were given and not strive to be first in everything or glum when realizing that they were not the best at everything. That is an important lesson from ancient times.

But, and this is the point I am trying to make here, while contentment is good, it should not become an enemy of endeavor. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. Because I believe that, I like the little poem of Edward Everett Hale:

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.[4]

Instead of being content with what we have already accomplished or feeling bad because of not being able to accomplish more, we need what megachurch pastor Bill Hybels calls holy discontent.[5] That is the attitude that keeps us seeking to do our best always rather than being satisfied with just the good.

On the Other Hand

I first heard the words “Don’t let the good become an enemy of the best” in the 1950s, but I don’t remember hearing this balancing statement until around 2010: “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” When I began checking into this latter statement, I was surprised to discover that it goes back at least to the eighteenth century and probably circulated much earlier as a French proverb.

The prolific French writer Voltaire spoke about the best being the enemy of the good as early as 1764. Later, G. K. Chesterton, the English writer and philosopher, expressed the same sort of sentiment in 1910 when he wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”[6]

Perhaps I was so early and so long influenced by the wisdom of the former warning that I sometimes (or many times) made the mistake the latter statement warns against. Sometimes I have been called a perfectionist—although I insist that I am not a perfectionist, I just want things to be done right! But my desire to do things right, or as nearly perfect as possible, has sometimes kept me from doing much at all.

For example, through the years I did not write as much for publication as perhaps I should have. I wanted what I wrote to be “perfect.” Finally, in the 1990s I realized that I needed to start publishing more, even though it was not “perfect.” My desire for perfection had become the enemy of the good. So I started writing more, even though it was not “the best.” But it was the best I could do under the circumstances. I don’t think I was allowing the good to become an enemy of the best; rather, I was no longer letting the perfect become an enemy of the good.

There are, no doubt, many people who fail to do good things because they cannot do things they would like to do “perfectly.” Whether it is writing, composing poetry or music, or doing service projects, the desire for “the best” has often stifled doing “the good.”

As always, the goal is seeking balance or a position in the middle, between the extremes. Satisfaction with the good can, indeed, be an enemy of the best. But preoccupation with being or doing the best can also, certainly, keep one from doing good.

Always wanting to do the best can cause it to be very difficult to make a decision. That is, if one thinks that every decision made has to be the best one possible, one is likely to postpone making any decision out of fear that it will be less than the best. Thus, always striving for the best can lead to procrastination and to engaging in over-analysis that leads to paralysis. Both of those unhealthy characteristics, procrastination and over-analysis, are largely based on fear of falling short of the best.

Those who are always seeking the best have been called maximizers. They are people who need to be assured that their every decision is the best that could be made or every action is the best that could be done. The way a maximizer knows for certain about whether their decisions are the best ones possible is by considering all the alternatives they can imagine.[7] But that creates a psychologically daunting task, one that can easily become counter-productive.

So while maintaining that the good should never be an enemy of the best, we should, on the other hand, also never allow the best to be an enemy of the good. It certainly is counter-productive if our desire to do the best ends up keeping us from doing much good at all.

Seeking the Best without Being a Perfectionist

Being or doing the best we possibly can without falling into the trap of perfectionism is the goal for which we should strive. Dr. Steven Hendlin, a clinical psychologist, has defined a perfectionist as “someone who demands of himself or herself and others a higher quality of performance than is required by the situation.”[8] Always seeking the best can lead to feelings of never being satisfied and always feeling like a failure for not achieving perfection, which, of course, would be “the best.” Thus, seeking excellence without falling into perfectionism is like “dancing on the razor’s edge.”[9]

Perfectionism is a debilitating psychological weakness, and my insistence that we should never allow the good to become an enemy of the best should not be interpreted in such as way as to foster perfectionism. We need to take seriously the suggestions in books such as Dr. Monica Ramirez Basco’s Never Good Enough: Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism.[10]

Basco believes that since “it is possible to experience the advantages of perfectionism while minimizing” the disadvantages, she can say to her readers that “this book will help you learn how to use perfectionism to your advantage without letting it ruin your life” (p. xiv). Finding that narrow path between the advantages and the disadvantages is the “razor’s edge” that Hendlin wrote about.

And that is the goal we should yearn for: always seeking to be and to do the best without falling into debilitating perfectionism—and never letting the good become an enemy of the best.

[1] In Morals for Moderns (Liveright, 1939), Ralph A. Habas writes, “‘The good,’ runs an old aphorism, ‘is the enemy of the best’” (p. 211). Earlier, John Kelman (1864-1929) wrote in his Thoughts on Things Eternal (George H. Doran, n.d.), “. . . every respectable Pharisee proves the truth of the saying that ‘the good is the enemy of the best” (p. 108).

[2] These oft-cited words by Wesley (1703-92) are sometimes called his Rule for Christian Living.

[3] These words are said to have come from Henri Didon (1840-1900), a Dominican priest.

[4] Hale (1822-1909) was a Unitarian pastor, and from 1903 until his death he was the chaplain of the U.S. Senate. His poem is found in James Dalton Morrison, ed., Masterpieces of Religious Verse (Broadman Press, 1948), no. 1364.

[5] Hybels (b. 1951), the founding pastor, in 1975, of Willow Creek Community Church in the outskirts of Chicago, is the author of Holy Discontent: Fueling the Fire that Ignites Personal Vision, published by Zondervan in 2007. Unfortunately, in April 2018 Hybels resigned as pastor of Willow Creek after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him, though he has denied all allegations.

[6] The French words of Voltaire (1694-1778) are found in his Dictionnaire Philosophique and the quote by Chesterton (1874-1936) appears in his book What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

[7] Barry Schwartz (b. 1946), an American psychologist and professor at Swarthmore College, has written about maximizers in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2004).

[8] Hendlin practices in Newport Beach, California, and his statement is found on several Internet sites. He is the author of When Good Enough is Never Enough: Escaping the Perfection Trap (1992).

[9] “Perfection or Excellence? Dancing on the Razor’s Edge” is the first chapter in Hendlin’s book.

[10] (Free Press, 1999). Basco is a clinical psychologist who completed her doctoral work at the University of Southern California in 1987.