What it takes to be a good person

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

As I think I said a while ago here, one of the things I dislike about the ageing process is that funerals become almost commonplace.

When I was a boy, the rare funerals I attended were a couple of generations ahead of me: grandparents, great aunts and uncles and the like. Later in life, it might have been people of my parents’ vintage. Now it’s my contemporaries.

I was at one such a couple of days ago. An old friend, seven years my junior, had smoked himself to death, and in a eulogy one of his brothers described him thus: he worked hard and he played hard, maybe if he had played a little less hard we might have had him for a few more years.

Bryan was one of life’s gentle people, compassionate and kind, always had time for people. An ex-prison officer who stood beside me in the church, had tears in his eyes. ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,’ he said, nodding in the direction of the coffin.

Bryan retired early as an RUC sergeant. He had suffered greatly in the course of his duties. As another in his eulogy said, ‘He was captured by the bad boys and was badly beaten.’ He never recovered physically from that beating, but he went on to develop a new career for himself as a counsellor.

My wife once asked me what I would like as an inscription on my headstone. I thought long and hard about that question. Not specifically about the wording on my headstone, more about my life, my contribution to society and the impact, if any, I am having on those with whom I share space on this planet. Bryan, according to those who spoke at his funeral service, was a good man, and that’s what I had concluded all those years ago that I would like to mark my passing: he was a good man.

And then I began to think, what is a good man? For example, the terrorists who slaughtered 129 people in Paris last week probably thought they were good men wiping out the infidels and punishing the nation that is interfering with their plans to set up an Islamic State as part of their progress to world domination. So the definition might not be as simple as it first appears.

At the funeral, we sang that beautiful hymn, Make Me A Channel of Your Peace, wrongly attributed to Francis of Assisi. As a matter of interest, it first appeared as a poem in 1912 in a French Christian magazine called La Clochette (The Little Bell).

When we came to the chorus it occurred to me, that’s what it is to be a good person:

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek,

So much to be consoled as to console. 

To be understood as to understand 

To be loved as to love with all my soul. 

In other words, if my life is all about me, my needs, my problems, my pains, my marriage, my finances, I will never know contentment or fulfilment. It seems I will only ever know fulfilment if and when I am serving others. Benjamin Franklin put it well: ‘A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.’ Isn’t that what Jesus said? ‘The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’