Who knows how far back in time, this phrase actually goes. Of course, etched into the mind of many a baby boomer is also the Billy Joel song by the same title. Were the attempts to ban it, what made it a best seller? A little context: "Only The Good Die Young" was a sentimental song for me, in part because of its light hearted nature and just because I was already a Billy Joel fan.
However what I want to consider is the rationale of the phrase, in a broader sense. I had thought that the important context was obvious but after Googling for some simple historical explanation, the first half dozen pages included a lot of hysterical reactions to the sexual nature of the song, along with some hurt feelings on the part of the Catholic church. Oh well! The life of Jesus as a good person was also cut far too short: yet another example of what I had expected to find in a casual search.
Doubtless, buried somewhere under all of the online "outrage", are stories why this phrase was once widely used. It especially reminds me of another still commonly used phrase: "The poor will always be with us". Indeed, those connections to sorrow and resignation are what concern me now. Fatalism doesn't sit well, with me. Might organized religion take note of the poor, because it's easier to remain honorable and poor at the same time? Perhaps.
Yes, there will always be some born into the world who do not strive enough to succeed. But what about the ones who try - only to be thwarted just the same? The beginning phrase of a song "Starry starry night, paint your palette blue and grey" comes to mind, and also the artist who is highlighted.
Only consider the book, "The 48 Laws of Power". One reason it was so popular, was the fact that Robert Greene wasn't afraid to mince words, regarding what could happen to those who were too "good" in certain respects. Culturally, few are comfortable with the fact that power tends to crush the good - hence it tends to be a hidden subtext in dialogue. Since religious institutions can be prone to some of the same power tactics, a little "convenient" projection is in order. There's something else that is oh so much easier to blame. Money...all the fault of money! Hardly, even if some on the political left - and right - remain willing to join hands and insist otherwise.
Think about those who populations implore to be good and just, i.e. our leaders. After all, people in power are the ones with authority over the resources that affect destinies. It's obvious why anyone desires goodness to reside here. But being "good" is often a different story, for those who have little power in their lives. The more that power ends up concentrated, the more disdain for anyone who comes across a bit too beta, shall we say. Even in families where being good, otherwise known as not being a bother - may be expected! Don't get me wrong: legally, being good is expected just the same, for being otherwise can quickly get one thrown in jail.
Some might logically ask. Why bother then...showing one's "best side" to others, in times when there's little respect to be had, for doing so? A book by Ayya Khema, "Being Nobody Going Nowhere" is helping me to be less "grouchy" in that regard. Something really interesting, is that the rationale for being good is actually quite selfish. After all, the process begins with being good to ourselves first. It's about making peace with ourselves and the subsequent happiness that can follow. Any benefit that others might receive from our own goodness is quite secondary. That's a moral tale I can live with. Perhaps it will even help with a bit more longevity, than would otherwise be possible.
Of course, books such as the one by Ayya Khema serve as reminders that it is "impossible" to change the world. Fortunately, that doesn't stop anyone from trying. Particularly when present day economic circumstance are not at all what they should be. Liberation of all kinds is within reach, when our economic realities make life easier for those who don't necessarily have a lot of power to begin with.
There's always going to be someone who insists on doing things one way, all the time. Just the same, changing ourselves for the better does not mean we always have to do so by someone else's dictates. Not only do we need to be in our "own corner" first, we need to be able to do so on terms we can live with. That's why it is worthwhile to strike at the root of what causes the most suffering - whether that root cause be spiritual, social, or economic.