Aside from being able to distinguish between what is clearly good and what is clearly bad, we need to learn to distinguish the different levels and nuances of what is good, since we have to choose the right good at the right moment or situation. Not everything that is good in itself is the good thing to be, have or do in a given situation.
In this regard, two aphorisms can illustrate this point where the good and the best can, in fact, clash. One is, “The good is the enemy of the best.” And the other is, “The best is the enemy of the good.” And we have to know when each is applicable.
That “the good is the enemy of the best” simply means that one is contented with settling for things that are merely good or adequate while preventing him from achieving that which is ideal.
In the gospel, this phenomenon is illustrated in that parable where Christ spoke about the kingdom of heaven being like treasure hidden in a field and about a merchant looking for fine pearls. (cfr. Mt 13,44-46)
When a man found the treasure hidden in the field, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Also, when the merchant found a pearl of great value, he went away and sold everything he had in order to buy that pearl.
This attitude of settling only with what is passable or adequate and not striving to have the ideal or the best is a manifestation of certain spiritual lukewarmness or of a spirituality that is stuck in mediocrity. The fervor of love is missing. The creativeness and inventiveness of love is absent. It’s an attitude that can expose a conscience that is lax.
Sad to say, many people fall for this kind of attitude and lifestyle. We need to find a way of rousing them from their state of lethargy and self-contentment, and of motivating them to get out of their comfort zone if they truly know that they can do more. If they have the proper spirit and is truly burning with love, they would be willing to leave behind what is already good in order to pursue what is better, if not the best.
The other aphorism, “the best is the enemy of the good,” simply means that one is obsessed with what he considers to be perfection. In other words, he is afflicted with the anomaly called perfectionism. It’s an attitude that can spring from a scrupulous conscience.
Variations of this aphorism are Confucius’ “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” Or Shakespeare’s “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” An example of this attitude is when a student is so obsessed in making an excellent research that he fails to submit his work on time.
In the gospel, this phenomenon is exemplified when Christ said that it would be better to have one eye, or one hand or one arm and enter heaven than to have both of these faculties but go to hell. (cfr. Mt 18,8-9)
It’s a call to be contented with what is already adequate or to make do or put up with something that is already bearable if the ideal condition cannot be achieved. It’s a call to be realistic and practical.
Obviously, for us to know which case is appropriate in a given situation, we need to refer ourselves to God in our conscience. It’s true that we have to aim at what is the best, but if for some reason the best condition cannot be achieved, we have to be contented with what we have or what is doable or achievable, even if it is not the ideal.
Usually when we refer things to God, some peace of mind and a sense of confidence would be felt.