I like being around college students. I admire their energy, optimism, and belief that anything is possible. Optimism is a nourishing elixir, especially during a brutal political campaign and stagnant economy. One of the joys of being a university president is that when you truly have an open-door policy, students seek you out for conversation.
Last year one of our female students stopped by my office to see me. She was a senior on schedule to graduate in May. I asked if she wanted to talk about an academic issue or if it was something personal in nature. She said it was personal, and that she just needed some advice. Anyone who knows me very well understands that I hesitate to give advice. Since I seldom appreciate receiving unsolicited advice, I dislike appearing to be hypocritical by freely distributing it. Anyway, I agreed to listen and then decide if I felt comfortable advising her.
She said the person she�d been dating for several months-a young man I did not know and who attended another university-had asked her to marry him. Already I was suspicious about this guy. If he was not wise enough to attend our campus, was he good enough for her? She then asked the question she had come to see me about. "Is he the right person for me to marry?"
As I looked at her oh-so-somber face waiting in anxious anticipation for me to answer, I realized just how important my words were going to be for her. Those of us in lofty positions of authority need to remember that others take our advice seriously-sometimes even more seriously than we intended. We cannot be hasty or superficial when we advise others. Advice can become the basis for life-altering decisions, and that is why I give it sparingly.
"Is he the right person for me to marry?" she had asked. Marriage is a big league, whole enchilada, prime-time decision, and she wanted my advice. I thought very carefully before answering.
When you marry someone, that is the person you fall asleep with each night and wake up with each morning. That is the person who sits across the table from you for breakfast every morning and for dinner every evening. That is the person whose family now becomes your family-even goofy Uncle Garfield and flighty Aunt Ida. That is the person who will raise children with you, spoil grandchildren with you, and grow old, gray, and forgetful with you. That is the person whose cute quirks may eventually become unbearably monotonous annoyances. And that person is your built-in movie date and partner for the rest of your life. Promising your life to someone is an unparalleled lifelong commitment.
After an extra-long pause following her question, I asked slowly and deliberately, "Can he pass the character test?" She gave me a quizzically earnest look, then asked me to explain what I meant. "Can he pass the character test?" I repeated. "Is he a man of character, honesty, and integrity? Is he someone you will have to watch every minute, or is he someone you can trust? Is he someone who will misbehave when he is out of your sight, when he is gone for an evening with the boys? Can he be trusted to be right in the little things? If he cannot be trusted to be right in the little things, he certainly cannot be trusted with the really big things. Is he someone worthy of your unquestioning, unconditional love?"
As I spoke, she remained silent, focused on her hands and examining her nails. When she finally did look up at me, she nodded her head, then stood to give me a quick hug before leaving my office. A few weeks later, I saw her in the library and asked how she was doing with her decision. She answered that she had turned down the marriage proposal, and that they were no longer dating. She said she realized he was not the right person because, even when they were dating, she could not trust him to be right in the little or the big things. In fact, she added, although he thought he was always right, she found him to be more self-righteous than right. As she thanked me for listening, I noticed she looked happily relieved and much more content than she had several weeks before.
Her words, -"more self-righteous than right," have stayed with me. I hear the term self-righteous quite often when someone is being critical of someone else: "That self-righteous so and so," or "He acts so self-righteous." I do not hear the word righteous as much, such as, "There goes a righteous man," or "She is righteous in actions and words." Righteous is defined as acting justly, doing what is right, being virtuous, and having a sound moral basis. Too often, I hear righteous only in the context of self-righteous, and based upon the definitions of righteous, self-righteous is the ultimate oxymoron.
The world needs more righteous people. Righteousness has roots. Righteousness is deeply grounded in honesty, integrity, character, and values. Righteousness is knowing good from bad, truthfulness from deceit, honesty from dishonesty, sincerity from hypocrisy. Righteousness is not seeing how much we can get away with, or how far we can push the limits, or what we can make from the misfortune of others, or how much we can gain by taking advantage of others. Righteousness is knowing right from wrong. My goodness, how important is that in this day and age: knowing right from wrong?
Who does know right from wrong? Corporate CEOs? Wall Street Gurus? Elected Politicians? Judges? Lawyers? Newspaper Editors? Right Wingers? Left Wingers? Tea Partiers? Priests? Television Evangelists? What about University Presidents? All of us�all of us�need to know right from wrong, and we need to demand the same from others. Righteousness beats self-righteousness every day of the week.
These difficult and challenging times call for righteous people-people who know what is right. These times call for us to ask this question: How can I make right what others make wrong? Sounds like an impossible challenge, doesn't it? Maybe it is. But if working to answer that question begins with each one of us, we can, in our own unique manner and environment, begin to make a difference in ourselves and within the lives of those around us. Righteousness grows deeply when it is firmly planted and nurtured. Righteousness is right in so many ways.
Righteousness has roots.