“Be excellent to each other” is not only the catch-phrase of an 80s cult classic but also an excellent guide to life. And despite its dubious origin, there is wisdom contained in the memorable phrase, a wisdom of which we might need reminding.
Being excellent means much more than being polite or nice to each other. Although it certainly contains both politeness and pleasantness, there are times when politeness becomes an obstacle to the good and pleasantness a fruitless distraction from the bad, and sometimes excellence cannot be decorous.
Being excellent encompasses what is commonly called “tough love.” Because love requires giving a child his shots. Love requires uncomfortably confronting a friend’s self-destructive behavior. Love requires taking the car keys from an elderly relative. And in some cases, love demands unpleasantness, demands refusing superficial niceties. It calls for excellence, which means doing what is truly good for each other.
In a way, “be excellent to each other” is a consequence of Saint Thomas’s definition of love: “to will the good of another.” And thus, the Christian life proposes new forms of excellence, elaborated in the works of mercy. In one way, the memorable maxim recalls the work of admonishing the sinner. To be excellent to the sinner is to admonish him for his sin, at the proper time and in a prudent manner, in order to lead him back to Christ. It also recalls the work of evangelization, the sharing of the life-giving message of forgiveness and redemption purchased by Jesus Christ for each and every person. Withholding the Gospel from someone, even if it’s easier and nicer and politer, is leaving someone lost in the darkness without the Light of Life. And that’s most un-excellent. Servant of God Dorothy Day, champion of the poor, says the same.
Together with the works of mercy, feeding, clothing and sheltering our brothers, we must indoctrinate. We must “give reason for the faith that is in us.” Otherwise our religion is an opiate, for ourselves alone, for our comfort or for our individual safety or indifferent custom.
We cannot live alone. We cannot go to heaven alone. Otherwise, as Peguy said, God will say to us, “Where are the others?”
If we do not keep indoctrinating, we lose the vision. And if we lose the vision, we become merely philanthropists, doling out palliatives.
Don’t dole out spiritual palliatives when you know the Divine Physician who freely gives the miracle cure. Don’t be nice and polite at the expense of the good. “Be excellent to each other.”