Friday, May 09, 2008

Self-Inflicted Gold Stars


The other day, I ran into a neighbor who was quite excited about her volunteer work with underprivileged children. She told me that she had committed to coaching them in some activity on Wednesdays and had cut short a business trip and rearranged her schedule and her life in order to be in the city on that day. She showed me a broken key chain which she had promised to replace for one of them. Since I was on my way to the hardware store I offered to buy her one, but she said that she would take care of it.

I walked away thinking how wonderful it was that she was giving back from a life of extreme privilege, and feeling good about the depth and breadth to which her soul could reach.

That evening, I overheard her on the stairwell of our building, telling my next-door neighbor about her volunteer activities. We all know that Skankblossom doesn't give a damn about anyone but herself, but still she was regaled with the entire story, word for word, that I had heard earlier. Soulful neighbor had cut short her business trip and rearranged her life to be here on Wednesday, but it felt wonderful to give back. She even mentioned the key chain she had replaced for one of the children.

By this time, it was getting old.

It made me wonder what, exactly, constitutes a good deed, and is it in fact a good deed if it also includes bragging rights?

It seems that if the giver benefits as much as the recipient, it is not true giving. Yet, it's surely better than the alternative.

I am leaning toward the belief that it is still good if others are helped, but perhaps less pure than if they were helped out of sheer compassion. Giving must always be better than not giving, but I prefer that it be done anonymously, without demanding recognition or credit.

Is there a hierarchy of giving, a scale by which generous acts are measured? How much does intent matter if the result is beneficial? Does the end justify the means?

I doubt it.

But I am also aware that if only the truly enlightened performed kind acts, there would be fewer kind acts performed. And that would be abysmal.

Perhaps the very act of doing good raises our vibration so that it becomes easier next time. We have to start somewhere. But how much nicer to refrain from praising ourselves when we do it so our deeds are not diluted by ego.

To paraphrase Matthew:

"When you do merciful deeds, don't sound a trumpet before yourself as the hypocrites do that they may get glory from men. Don't let your left hand know what your right hand does, so that your merciful deeds may be in secret."

I agree.

"Louie, Matthew, this may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

54 comments:

thailandchani said...

I agree with Matthew :) It does diminish giving if it is offset with bragging. In fact, I can very quickly lose interest in someone's activities if their sole purpose in telling me is to get praise.

"Never let the left hand know what the right is doing" is another phrase that comes to mind.

Wrong intention is wrong intention, no matter how it's packaged.

Nick said...

Heart, I don't think this is so simple. Charities give huge help to many people but most aren't anonymous and make a point of saying how much help they are giving. That doesn't make the help less valuable, or discredit the efforts of those working for them.

I think the important distinction is between saying you're helping in an unassuming "Doing what I can" way and saying it in a bragging "Aren't I wonderful" way. The second is clearly egotistical and sheds doubts on the person's sincerity. It also makes the person helped less grateful because they feel they are just being used.

I also think it's okay for the giver to benefit as well as the recipient. If you feel yourself a more compassionate and complete human being for helping someone, if you feel you've learnt something from the exchange, that seems a good feeling that can only encourage you to give more.

blooming desertpea said...

I was thinking that maybe this lady is new to giving and didn't think she'd be capable of doing it - so, maybe she is proud of herself and that's the reason she's telling everyone ...

Molly said...

I agree that it is better to be charitable anonymously. I find it a total turnoff when I read about celebrities making a big deal of their good works. Hopefully they benefit someone. The people I really admire are the ones who make large contributions to deserving causes and ask specifically that their identity not be revealed. The ones who brag get their reward here, the anonymous ones get their reward in heaven, if that doesn't sound too corny!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Chani,

I think that all giving is good, but giving and boasting reeks of ulterior motive and cannot be as high a deed.

Nick,

You raise good points about charitable foundations who are actually required to disclose where the contributions go, but I was referring to individuals.

And those who are helped so that the giver can glorify himself will surely feel used, even though he needs the help.

It's a matter of degree to me. Doing good without seeking kudos ranks higher, in my view.

Blooming,

I had the same thought! It was almost like new love in that she was clearly enraptured with herself as a doer of good deeds. Maybe after the honeymoon wears off, she'll continue to do them more quietly.

Molly,

The passage from St. Matthew which I paraphrased actually does refer to a reward in or from heaven.

"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. (2) Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (3) But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: (4) That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. Matthew 6:1-4

On a limb with Claudia said...

I could not agree with you more. I think we nestle a lot of narcissism in altruism.

Happy Mother's Day! :)

comfortandjoy said...

Hearts,

I don't know about announcing all of the good deeds a person has done.

But I was wondering your opinion on getting more than you give? What if a person spent a lot of time "doing good," but the whole time felt such peace and wholeness, that they forgot they were doing good? Do you think that person could have been any help at all? Do you think God notices?

Lex said...

I agree that seeking kudos for giving takes the giving down a notch.

Sometimes we can't give anonymously (to the recipient), but there's no need to tell the world what you've done. In a way, it's a breech of the privacy of the helped. It's no one's business that they were in need if they didn't tell them.

I think it's a common theme in the new testament that its better not to give than to give with the intention of vainglory. You've only now challenged me to re-think that. Is it still "good" that a need was met? I think so. Hmmm? I'll walk around and think about that for a while.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Claudia,

Yes! And it does detract from the gesture even if the end result is that someone was helped.

Giving should be its own reward.

Comfort&Joy,

I not only think God notices, I think She prefers it.

What you describe is the true nature of giving, in my view, doing it for the joy it brings the giver as well as filling a need.

Once we begin to measure our deeds (and pat our own backs,) something is lost no matter how much good is accomplished.

Lex,

I think so too. We can only be where we are in our journey. If we were already fully realized, we'd be done recycling ourselves through many lifetimes.

I still believe that helping is always good, but I'm a purist, so some helping is more good.

Christy said...

It is great she is doing something nice for the children. I wish her proud story could have come with more about them and less about all her sacrifices, but what can ya do?

comfortandjoy said...

Thanks, Heart. Maybe you could be right. I need God to notice. God looks away from me. CJ

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Christy,

Exactly.

I was trying to determine whether there is a difference in the quality of merit, basically, when good acts are done purely, without self-aggrandizement, and whether they are done impurely like Little Jack Horner who sat in a corner and said "Oh what a good boy am I!"

Of course good is done in any event. But the effect on the one who performs the deed must differ.

Comfort&Joy,

Nah, you're way too good to miss.

I used to think that God didn't believe in me, but then I realized that I had to do MY part by believing in me and the rest would fall into place.

katrice said...

That very quote that you used at the end is what I was thinking about as I read this.

"If you give to be seen, you have your reward already. But if you give secretly, your reward is in heaven."

I'm glad she's excited about it, but people who toot their own horns make you wish somebody would stick a sock in it.

RED MOJO said...

heart, A good post. I have witnessed this same thing, the bragging about good deeds. It taints it in my mind. It turns it into looking for recognition. A good deed is better done than undone, and what's behind it may not matter to the benefactor, but it does sour the intention.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Katrice,

A large, stinky gym sock.

If you do good people will usually find out, but it shouldn't matter if they do or not.

Mojo,

Well said! It does sour the intention no matter who benefits.

the walking man said...

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. James 3:13


Wisdom doesn't always come early or easily.

Peace

mark

Nick said...

I agree giving should ideally be anonymous, but that's often impossible. If you're on a public street and give money to a rough sleeper or help someone who's blind then many people will witness it. I still think the point is your behaviour i.e. whether you're matter-of-fact about it or whether you're expecting a round of applause.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Mark,

It's true. And if the good deed comes before the humility, so be it.

Nick,

The effect on the recipient is probably pretty much the same either way. But the effect on the giver differs depending on his attitude.

Bread is bread, but I imagine you get more points, so to speak, when that is not your motivation.

Sienna said...

Yes Hearts, my thoughts too, is that it is unconditional, a willing choice...(giving, sharing, helping where you can).

I know of a wonderful man (an Ozzy) who is a very successful guy, who was getting a lot of criticism for taking himself and friends to Italy for his 40th birthday party...all paid by him.

He received an absolute public canning from some people about what a waste of money, self indulgnce, rah rah, etc...what these people didn't know is that this guy has the most amazing resources set up (scholarships, schools in 3rd world countries, as well as Oz) for disadvantaged kids.

He was a disadvantaged kid once, he clamored his way into a secure lifestyle, I cannot begin to tell you the wonderful things he has done and the heart he has for people, (giving them a leg up)...and he let these people think what they like....I asked him why, (after I'd given them a barrel)...I can reach a stage when I find I have a little bit of a temper :) )....and he said "but why?"

He said; "I know what I do, I only ever have to answer to my own conscience, how other people perceive me is none of my business."

Just an amazing guy, very much one of my inspirations in how to go about doing stuff...he actually built up an investing portfolio worth millions and gave it away (charities)...kept a small leveraging portion and then built it all up again, I think in his early 30's.

He is very supportive of disadvantaged kids, emergency housing, domestic violence shelters, thirld world children's education/health centres...and yet very very few people (or press) know the extent that he gives from his heart.

Aren't some people just incredible. And so beautiful.

meno said...

I prefer to remain anonymous. Bragging makes me itch.

I don't know if it dimishes the act, but to me, it diminishes the bragger.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Pam,

That man sounds just wonderful. We should all strive to be more like him, no matter how little we have to give by comparison because it really is the thought that counts. What a truly beautiful person he is! Thank you so much for sharing this.

Meno,

A good distinction, but if we are what we do, is there a difference between the act and the actor?

Bragging makes me want to run, or to say, "You ain't all that."

I think that calling attention to our own good deeds diminishes them, and us.

urban-urchin said...

Have you seen the Curb Your Enthusiasm "Anonomous"? It's a freakin' hysterical take on this subject. Tooting your own horn.. I am so good, look at me. Which is why Oprah gets on my tits so much.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Urchin,

I haven't seen it because I could never stand Seinfeld, but maybe I should check it out sometime.

Oprah gets on your tits? That must hurt.

furiousBall said...

yep, 100% couldn't agree with you more. intention counts more.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Van,

Ohhh, I just love it when you agree with me.

PeterAtLarge said...

Hopefully, though, her loud mouth will help spread the word about the value and importance of giving, even if it somewhat diminishes her own!

Say It said...

I wonder if Skanklady thought she was giving by listening to this lady?

I think that if everyone gives in whatever fashion they can, it helps. Even if they are generous for selfish reasons, it helps.

Sorry you had to listen to this tiresome womans story twice.

The CEO said...

What's amazing to me is that philanthropy is just the opposite. Steve Schwartz, who made $5 billion last year running a hedge fund gave $100 million to the NY Public Library. In return, the library will carve his name into the building in five prominent places.

Rockerfeller's name is all over Williamsburg, which was restored originally with Rockerfeller money.

But the story I'd prefer you to remember is from 1982. Ronald Reagan had emptied the Federal sanatoriums such as Saint Elizabeth's in DC, and we suddenly had a huge crop of homeless people. I was working late on 1st Street a block from the Supreme Court, and a friend and I went to a deli for sandwiches. A young lady walked over to a homeless person on the street and took her inside and bought her dinner.

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone can be a Forest Gump. So I agree, lending a helping hand and expecting nothing in return ought to be the rule. I call it what goes around, comes around, and it's reason enough by itself.

Happy Mother's Day!

Monty

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Peter,

Excellent point! I dearly hope you're right.

Say it,

I didn't mind listening twice, but it disabused me of any notion I might have had that she told ME about it because she knew I'd understand.

Monty,

That young woman exemplifies a special kind of giving.

The Rockefellers have always been philanthropists as are Bill Gates and Paul Newman among others, and that's also a test of character: giving even when you have nothing to gain. It's always gratifying when very rich people choose to share their bounty.

Mariposa said...

I so agree with Matthew! Well, sometimes, I do get to share acts of charity with friends too, but only because at the end, I'm inviting them to join me or help in any way they can.

That neighbor of yours seemed to have rehearsed her story so well. And it's not doing good because rather than enticing people to follow her acts...it makes them cynical!

riseoutofme said...

Our egos get in the way all the time, don't they?

Helping others is our way of pulling our own weight ... not something that should require acknowledgement or praise. Needing to speak of it displays an inner need to be recognised as a worthy human being. How can we not be compassionate?

WNG said...

In the eyes of the univers, or God, or maybe even you the act may be diminished, but in the eyes of the kid who got her keychain fixed it is just a miraculous. If others need to brag then that is their need, I'm just grateful she did something worth bragging about.

Craze said...

I agree with you. Giving to satisfy some personal agenda of your own is not quite the same.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Mariposa,

Asking friends to perform charitable acts with you is not the same as bragging because you are motivating others, and you all get to share the joy of giving.

Rise,

So true. I believe that we are supposed to be helping each other as a matter of course, but ego distorts even the most glorious acts.

Wng,

Yes, certainly the fact that someone was helped is most important. Maybe after she's done it for awhile, it will become her normal behavior and not newsworthy anymore.

Craze,

It's the personal agenda I object to, not the giving, no matter what inspires it.

In an ideal world, giving would be unheralded but still, from a pragmatic point of view, better to give and brag than never to give at all.

witnessing am i said...

"Flowers always leave a fragrance in the hand that bestows them." No need for bragging, if one is truly giving.

We don't need to get anything in return if we are giving to a cause or with purpose. Do we really need a Tootsie Roll (and I LOVE Tootsie Rolls) as a thank you "gift" when we give to the Red Cross or Veterans guy hanging out in the middle of the intersection? I hope not. I wish they didn't give us that. Giving is a gift enough.

Ian Lidster said...

I think your good deeds must speak for themselves and they do not include bragging rights at all. To me it takes from the effect and becomes an ego thing. that's not how it's meant to work. On the other hand, at least your neighbor is doing something, and so many in our society do utterly fuck all to give back.
It reminds me of something told me years ago. I interviewed (to my delight) blind jazz pianist George Shearing. Shearing was a great buddy of Sinatra's and wouldn't countenance a bad word against the man. Well, I'd always loved Frank's musical prowess as well as his acting, so I was fine with that, despite the fact he could be a notorious shit at times.
Anyway, Shearing told me that FS gave away literally millions to charity every year and he would find specific cases of people in distress to help out. His caveat was, however, that the recipient of his benificence must never know the source, and his acts of generosity must never be publicized. That to me is true charity.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

David,

What a lovely saying, which I've never heard.

It's sad when those who are helped feel the need to give something in return, although maybe it makes them feel less like they are getting charity. It turns generosity into commerce, which is so overemphasized in our culture.

But you can have all my tootsie rolls.

Ian,

I think ego takes away from the act of giving, although people in need are still being helped.

I saw George Shearing at Birdland in my teens!

Elvis Presley was also an anonymous donor. He adopted a little town in TN and the residents always seemed to get what they needed: a bag of money, a child's bike, delivered in the night to their doorsteps.

They had their suspicions about who their benefactor was but couldn't prove it. When Elvis died, the largesse did, too.

Rebecca said...

I believe that if you are doing a good deed, the only one who needs to know is you. If, in conversation, you divulge that you are doing volunteer work for a specific organization, fine. I don't think the biblical admonition to remain anonymous applies. Where your neighbor erred is in (repeatedly) telling how she rearranged her schedule, etc., and not allowing you to assist by going to the hardware store. She was acting in a boastful, covetous way thereby diminishing her act.

I agree that good deeds need to be performed, and the more the better. And I would not criticize a person for rambling on about their supposed altruism, but I would recognize that it was more about satisfying that person's ego or polishing their appearance in the eyes of others than about truly helping another person. The person helped is simply a vehicle for the "giver's" own aggrandizement.

The benefit of giving is to the giver's soul, and is best reflected upon in the silent places therein. The world will know of your act, not by the telling, but by the effect it has upon you as you walk through the world.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Rebecca,

That was beautifully said, all of it, and took my breath away.

Will you write my posts for me?

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

I really like the primary concept expressed by the Hebrew word “Mitzvah” upon which that Mathew text is based. True, a mitzvah is an “act of human kindness.” However, it isn’t just any good deed because, if you tell someone you did it, then it is no longer a Mitzvah.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

St. Nick,

Exactly.

It may still do someone good, but ceases to be a mitzvah to the one who boasts of doing it.

Rebecca said...

I blush...'specially since you are a much finer writer than I.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Rebecca,

Naw, I ain't.

(Now I'm blushing.)

citizen of the world said...

I guess, in the grand scheme of things, I'd rather have a self-congratualtory person who does charitable acts than a quiet person who does nothing for anyone else, BUT it does seem cheesy. I most admiire the people who quietly go about the business of helping others (or the world) when they can and don't require a lot of recognition and praise.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Citizen,

It IS cheesy in the same way kissing and telling is.

End of story.

Los Angelista said...

The phrase that comes to mind is "savior mentality" -- she's totally going down that road with the bragging and hyping up her own sacrifices.

Crankster said...

You've hit on a big question. The thing of it is, organized religion is based on the notion that, left to our own devices, we would do little beyond eat, defecate, and pursue the spread of our own DNA. It then frightens us into good behavior by threatening us with the boogyman if we fail to do well.

Beyond that, even those who aren't religiously inclined only do good because of a notion of societal efficiency or a belief in Karma. Or, in the case of your neighbor, because they see it as a position-enhancing action.

Still, egotism gets libraries built, symphonies funded, schools staffed, scholarships endowed, and so forth. I guess I'd have to argue that, once good is let loose in the world, it stands on its own merits. Regardless of our intentions, we are, at least to a certain extent, only the tools by which the world proceeds.

Oddly, I find that idea comforting.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Liz,

I'm not too impressed with the magnitude of her sacrifices.

Crankster,

Your comment blows me away. I love the idea that good, let loose in the world, becomes its own merit.

When you put it like that, I have to find comfort, too, in the fact that no matter how badly we screw up, the world proceeds.

Quiet Rage said...

I ranted about this as well -- I called it the 'greedy side of giving.' I think you're right on.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Rage,

I'll have to read your take on it. "The greedy side of giving" is wonderful.

Jocelyn said...

Go, Matthew!

Sounds like her good deeds had become like the weather for this woman--the thing she needed to talk about with every passing person, as a way to draw them both into some sort of commonality (in this case, admiration of her).

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Jocelyn,

Yes, a person could get the idea that is was all about her, if they were so inclined.

Angela said...

I don't usually find much value in quoting scripture, but I remember growing up with a verse that said something like, "When you do good, do it in secret. The person who brags about what he/she has done has already received their reward." That ego motivates some people to give what they wouldn't otherwise give may be a good thing (i.e. the end justifying the means), but it's bothersome to me to have to sit and listen to people talk about all the good they're doing. Bugs me, too.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Angela,

I just wish people would give me credit for knowing how to use my eyes and ears. Trust me, I WILL notice when they do good things, but it's so much nicer when they haven't boasted about it.