When we think about the power of example we quite naturally think of good example. We think of the example of Your life, the examples of the saints and of good people we have known. We may also think of the obligation we have to be a good example in our own lives.
What we do not often think of is the power of “negative example.” And the paradox is that it can be a powerful example for good. An attitude of "There but for the grace of God go I" seems to smack too much of the Pharisee who thanked God
he was not like other men. But it cannot be denied that there are nuggets of insight in negative examples. What do we take from watching felons, con artists, tyrants and psychopaths? The example of what we should not be is often as powerful as the example of what we should be. Even the mistakes, failures, and weaknesses of those closest to us can be insightful.
While charity, compassion, and forgiveness compel us to overlook these foibles in others, we cannot overlook them in ourselves. We can forgive what we take from the negative examples of others, but we shun what we forgive in them if it’s in ourselves.
Just as the child who learns fire is hot by getting burned, or knives are sharp by getting cut; direction, balance, and wisdom are augmented in positive ways from negative examples. We all know someone, or have a relative from whom we recognize what is positive because of their negatives. Thus it seems quite apparent that while Your life and the lives of the saints and good people are the models for our own lives, there are other sources – negative sources – upon which reasonable common sense can build.