Good For You!

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  Removing the Thorn - P J Crook courtesy of Bridgeman Images

 

Some time ago, a colleague in a now defunct writers' forum, highlighted the paradox of how self-interest can masquerade as altruism. She quoted Ezra Bayda:  '...whenever we feel an urgency or longing to help, it’s often rooted in the fear of facing our own unhealed pain.'

That it may be so, can't be disputed and the blogger was scrupulously honest in examining her own motives, but I'd want to question the other side of Bayda's proposal.

What is so suspect about the empathy, or insight, that arises from going through, or having been through, the same kind of experiences? In externalising and refocusing our concerns, we can mend ourselves and maybe help to mend others, too. The endeavour itself is a learning curve and a transforming process. To claim, as Bayda apparently does, that it has no power to change us or enable inner growth is neither my personal experience nor observation of others'.

The Golden Rule suggests that we do to others as we would have them do to us . We love our neighbour as ourselves. We are linked. It's a mirror image, a multiple, ongoing, mirror image. We are interdependent. It's meant to be that way.

Yes, we do recognise fear in others because it is also in us. Mightn't that be true compassion? The most constructive form of aversion therapy, perhaps? Aren't we here to try to make the best of the hand we're dealt and 'contain the chaos', make some kind of sense of it?  

There is a lovely metaphor in circulation among clergy concerning a banquet in the halls of heaven where the guests, seated at one long table, are left to contemplate with dismay the wonderful feast placed before them. It turns out that the cutlery is too long to supply their own mouths! All that promise is destined to disappoint, until they hit on the solution of ministering to the person seated opposite so that the occasion metamorphoses into pure delight and enjoyment.

It is a documented, yet logically unexplained fact, that there are times, in extremis, in the heat of battle, or persecution, a human being will actually choose to lay down his life for someone he believes to be a worthier candidate for living than himself. This is not the same thing as fighting for freedom, or king or country, and being willing to place one's life on the line in a worst case scenario. Nor can it be compared with a death-and-glory bid in some ideological cause which is anathema to anything that passes for love.

I readily concede that there can be unhealthy instances of identity transference, hostage issues, possession, and ego-building at the expense of others, but feel sure the primary impulse is a sound one. Knowing when to offer help, and when to withdraw, is key. If we're going for the 'golden glow', we might as well forget it, because effective help is not necessarily recognised (on either side!) and is not always appreciated. Not everyone in crisis wants to be helped deep down.

In the overt quest for self-development and the solipsist outlook that goes with it, the western world seems to have hamstrung itself by believing that any form of altruism reflects hypocrisy. When our pop culture idols try to inject meaning into their empty existences and set some kind of karma in train for all they have been given, the scream of 'publicity' is loud and clear. But who are we to judge? How do we know they haven't had some Damascene revelation? If it's simply that their consciences have been smitten by humanitarian responsibility, does that trash their motive or nullify the good they do?

What appears to rule here is the bias of a mythical norm, a kind of mean that is purged of our shadier motives. Well, we're human, prone to bumbling idiocy half the time. We're not perfect. And the only way we're going to 'come good', sooner or later, is by acting out of our better nature, subscribing to a common value.

Our parents and grandparents – who weren't hidebound by the relativistic climate that is supposed to have freed us – used to have a saying: 'Do right because it is right.'

The blogger challenged our relationship with 'doing good'. What new resolutions did we need to form?

Personally, I am ever conscious of the pitfalls she spoke of, but at the end of the day, I can hand it all over to God and trust that through his agency good will emerge, healing will take place, maybe a quite different good from what I envisaged and one that, in the apparent scheme of things, has no connection with me.

So my maxim is the wisdom attributed both to St Augustine and to St Ignatius Loyola: 'Work as if everything depends on you and pray as if everything depends on God.'

In my book, that's awesome teamwork! 

Comments 7

 
Sue Martin Glasco on Monday, 18 May 2015 16:52

Do unto others often helps us decide what to do when in doubt. I do not always have the nerve or energy, but it is a comforting answer when puzzled about what to do.

I am delighted to see the dual attribution for your closing quote. Why? I thought a dear friend and pastor and originated it. I did not realize he was quoting someone.

Do unto others often helps us decide what to do when in doubt. I do not always have the nerve or energy, but it is a comforting answer when puzzled about what to do. I am delighted to see the dual attribution for your closing quote. Why? I thought a dear friend and pastor and originated it. I did not realize he was quoting someone.
Rosy Cole on Wednesday, 20 May 2015 13:53

Yes, I think you're right, Sue. Simple is always best.

In this era of the internet, when wisdom gets passed around so freely, who said what and when has become a seriously vexing issue.

Thanks so much for reading :-)

Yes, I think you're right, Sue. Simple is always best. In this era of the internet, when wisdom gets passed around so freely, who said what and when has become a seriously vexing issue. Thanks so much for reading :-)
Stephen Evans on Monday, 18 May 2015 22:52

Well said :)

Well said :)
Anonymous on Wednesday, 20 May 2015 05:49

First, I have to mention the beautiful illustration. I've seen it somewhere in the past, maybe only once, but it's perfect in this context. Then there is all that is sandwiched between the picture and the Augustine and Ignatius quotations. You've phrased it all very nicely. I've heard this complaint -- that when we help others we're just trying to make ourselves feel good -- from individuals I've known. I first heard it from a friend fifty years ago. I say, "so what?"

I think of Kent Keith's Paradoxical Commandments (often attributed to Mother Theresa who abided by them). "If you do good people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway." If I'm assuaging my own conscience in some way by rendering assistance to someone in distress -- again, so what? There are those who'd say, "if you want to make yourself feel good or feel better why not try self-indulgence? It works for me." So the next time I see someone crying out for help I'll do the honest thing: go to a bar and get plastered. When I've done that to satisfaction and I see the same person crying out for help I'll say, "sorry, pal, but I have too much self-honesty to be helping people like you."

One thing I must be honest about is this: When I was young and people told me that if I was down in the dumps I should help somebody else and that would make me feel better I proved them wrong. Sorry, but that was the way it was -- and is. I was always coming across people in need of help of various kinds and I'd help them. If I was depressed, which was my natural disposition, when the situation was attended to I was still depressed. In my Los Angeles years I often intervened when women were being beaten up on the street, usually by boyfriends or husbands. When I did this, always without thinking, dozens of men would stand around looking at their shoes or the pigeons flying by. When it was over and everything was peaceful the same men wanted to get involved. But I'd walk away feeling no better than I had before the incident.

Once again, excuse my long-windedness. I enjoyed reading this essay and am glad you took the position you did.

First, I have to mention the beautiful illustration. I've seen it somewhere in the past, maybe only once, but it's perfect in this context. Then there is all that is sandwiched between the picture and the Augustine and Ignatius quotations. You've phrased it all very nicely. I've heard this complaint -- that when we help others we're just trying to make ourselves feel good -- from individuals I've known. I first heard it from a friend fifty years ago. I say, "so what?" I think of Kent Keith's Paradoxical Commandments (often attributed to Mother Theresa who abided by them). "If you do good people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway." If I'm assuaging my own conscience in some way by rendering assistance to someone in distress -- again, so what? There are those who'd say, "if you want to make yourself feel good or feel better why not try self-indulgence? It works for me." So the next time I see someone crying out for help I'll do the honest thing: go to a bar and get plastered. When I've done that to satisfaction and I see the same person crying out for help I'll say, "sorry, pal, but I have too much self-honesty to be helping people like you." One thing I must be honest about is this: When I was young and people told me that if I was down in the dumps I should help somebody else and that would make me feel better I proved them wrong. Sorry, but that was the way it was -- and is. I was always coming across people in need of help of various kinds and I'd help them. If I was depressed, which was my natural disposition, when the situation was attended to I was still depressed. In my Los Angeles years I often intervened when women were being beaten up on the street, usually by boyfriends or husbands. When I did this, always without thinking, dozens of men would stand around looking at their shoes or the pigeons flying by. When it was over and everything was peaceful the same men wanted to get involved. But I'd walk away feeling no better than I had before the incident. Once again, excuse my long-windedness. I enjoyed reading this essay and am glad you took the position you did.
Rosy Cole on Wednesday, 20 May 2015 13:44

Thanks kindly for reading and for sharing your thoughts so candidly.

If it's any consolation, I am fully convinced that the times we do the most good are those in which there is a price to be paid. This, too, we need to 'offer up' and seek uplift and peace. It's the truest and safest way solace can come and character development has a chance. Prayer is not easy. And, let's be rigorously honest, it's not easy 'helping' others, either. We all have pressing concerns of our own. But we do need to share in some way. St Paul sums it up when he bids us 'bear one another's burdens'. It's our only hope when the nuclear family (and that description is worthy of reflection) has replaced the broken-down family networks and communities our forebears took for granted, which were for them a natural moral support system so that burdens didn't weigh too onerously on individuals.

There are obviously times which cry out for interventionist action, or practical help, but increasingly, I feel that prayer, as the first and last resource, administers to everyone concerned in a way which is most deeply relevant to them and enters places we can't otherwise reach. Surface reality (which is what governments wrestle with) is hardly ever the true locus of the pain.

Thanks kindly for reading and for sharing your thoughts so candidly. If it's any consolation, I am fully convinced that the times we do the most good are those in which there is a price to be paid. This, too, we need to 'offer up' and seek uplift and peace. It's the truest and safest way solace can come and character development has a chance. Prayer is not easy. And, let's be rigorously honest, it's not easy 'helping' others, either. We all have pressing concerns of our own. But we do need to share in some way. St Paul sums it up when he bids us 'bear one another's burdens'. It's our only hope when the nuclear family (and that description is worthy of reflection) has replaced the broken-down family networks and communities our forebears took for granted, which were for them a natural moral support system so that burdens didn't weigh too onerously on individuals. There are obviously times which cry out for interventionist action, or practical help, but increasingly, I feel that prayer, as the first and last resource, administers to [i]everyone[/i] concerned in a way which is most deeply relevant to them and enters places we can't otherwise reach. Surface reality (which is what governments wrestle with) is hardly ever the true locus of the pain.
Katherine Gregor on Thursday, 21 May 2015 09:35

As long as good – genuine good – is being done to others, then where's the problem? None of us are perfect. Isn't it better to look at the result in this case?

If we keep querying everything, we may be taking time and energy away from actually doing the good.

As long as good – genuine good – is being done to others, then where's the problem? None of us are perfect. Isn't it better to look at the result in this case? If we keep querying everything, we may be taking time and energy away from actually doing the good.
Rosy Cole on Thursday, 21 May 2015 13:36

Because none of us is perfect, we don't see the bottom line clearly, if at all, and, while we must do everything we can in practical terms, the results aren't down to us. (This is different from having a judgemental attitude.) Prayer engages the will and goes on working where human action leaves off, in hidden ways that would never occur to us. It's how the 'evidence of things not seen' produces faith.

Because none of us is perfect, we don't see the bottom line clearly, if at all, and, while we must do everything we can in practical terms, the results aren't down to us. (This is different from having a judgemental attitude.) Prayer engages the will and goes on working where human action leaves off, in hidden ways that would never occur to us. It's how the '[i]evidence[/i] of things not seen' produces faith.
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