During the holiday season it’s not just children who put forward their best behavior in hopes that Santa Claus delivers great bounty. The rest of us tend to reflect on our life’s journey. We try to be more considerate, patient and kind, while also being less judgmental of those around us.

We try to be more “saintly” don’t we?

Which got me thinking about what a saint really is. Is it the utmost in morality? I’m not sure that it is when you examine sainthood closely. Sainthood is individual in nature. In most major religions, a saint is a person of extremes. He is defined as loving kindness towards all. He lives in a world of self-denial, in that he doesn’t seek material rewards or outside praise.

A saint’s understanding of moral life is to give everything away to others in need. The saint may give all his money to the poor. But in so doing, what has the saint done to his own family? They suffer because of his extreme self-denial. A saint may refuse to fight in battle. But what about the saint’s country and its defense? A saint may forgive all crimes committed against him, at the expense of law and justice.

Saints are supremely virtuous people, yet you cannot build a society out of saints alone. Indeed, saints aren’t really interested in society. They have chosen a different, lonely self-segregating path.

Contrast this against a “sage” or “prophet”. When watching the news we see all sorts of people who claim to prophesize about our coming destruction. These are today’s moral guardians. Their interest is in society at large as opposed to individual virtue.

We are told that we have lost our moral compass. Our prophets lament inequality, be it racial, religious, ethnic or monetary. Our modern day sages cry that the earth is dying beneath our feet, yet we continue to spew greenhouse gases, eat meat, and throw plastics into the waters such that one day soon we will be able to walk across trash stretching from Japan to California.

A true sage is a different kind of person altogether, different than a saint. She follows the way of moderation and balance.

She avoids the extremes of cowardice on the one hand by speaking out about today’s wrongs and injustices, yet isn’t reckless about it, and thus acquires the virtue of courage. She avoids miserliness in one direction, prodigality in the other, and instead chooses the middle way of generosity.

The sage understands the twin dangers of too much and too little, excess and deficiency. She weighs the conflicting pressures and avoids extremes.

The saint and the sage are not just two types of people but rather two different ways of understanding moral life itself. Is a moral life to achieve personal perfection? Or is it to create gracious relationships and a decent, just and compassionate society? Can one have both?

I recently attended a conference where attorney Stan Miller explained that there will likely be the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in the next twenty years or so unlike anything previously encountered throughout history. What are we to do with this wealth? Will our estate plans help heed our prophets’ warnings to correct society’s wrongs? Is that not saintly to do so within your estate plan?

What are the causes most important to you? How will your legacy work to promote those issues? Will it be through those you have raised or taught? Or will you leave generous amounts to those willing to raise the flag after your time here is done?

Are you the saint who heeds the prophet’s warning? Or are you the prophet looking for saints to help your cause?

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.