Another Example of My Stupidity!
Thirty minutes into my planned 45-mile bike ride yesterday I experienced a flat tire (as a result of course, of my stupidity–I had overinflated the damn thing) and duly pulled over to fix it. I had no problem removing the tire, pulling out the old tube and replacing it with a new one, however while putting the wheel back onto the bike one of the springs that are part of the rear skewer went flying off into the grass on the side of the road.
Unfortunately, it’s not a good idea to ride without that spring, and even more unfortunately, the thing is very hard to see in a patch of grass. With no choice but to look for it, I soon found myself on my hands and knees, crawling around in search of a little coil of metal (photo to the right). Now you can imagine how this looked to a driver: you see a cyclist on his hands and knees, his bicycle laying on the ground with the wheel off, and you assume that he has just crashed and is in pain.
I was aware of this, and was hoping that a Good Samaritan wouldn’t waste her time by stopping to help. This scenario would have been made less likely had it not been for the fact that I had already been searching for ten minutes when a minivan stopped and out came a family in their Sunday best. After ascertaining that I was not injured, they offered to help me look and spent about a minute or two perfunctorily searching while I thanked them but said that I could handle it.
It was after they had finished their “search,” however, that the true reason for their help became clear. There I was, my hands and knees covered in dirt, my ride ruined, my back aching, and me growing increasingly pissed off at the whole situation, when the scion of this good family approached me with a pamphlet that read “Jesus loves you” on the cover. He proceeded to tell me that his church is just down the road (it literally is) and that if I ever chose to better myself, they would welcome me into their community.
I was not expecting this and merely thanked them and resumed my crawling (I found the spring 15 minutes later, by the way), but later that day I got to thinking about it and a few things came to mind. First, I’m not sure if they stopped because I looked injured, because they had just left church and thought this was a good opportunity to enact Christian values, or both. Second, there is something arrogant about handing someone a pamphlet offering the recipient a path to salvation, as if the pamphlet holder has gained entrance to a higher level of religious attainment and is now in a position to offer the same to others. And lastly, I’m an atheist Jew, for Christ’s sake! It would be one thing if they knew I was Christian looking to return to the fold, as it were, but for all they know I could be Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or Agnostic or Atheist!
Okay, so this was an incredibly minor event, and one that transpires all the time (I remember walking through the main quad at UCLA when my best friend was a student there and it was like a gauntlet of religious, spiritual, and political pamphleteering). Still, this stuck with me. I’ve no doubt that these are good people who just wanted to help, but as someone who has never been involved in organized religion in any way–never attended church or temple, never celebrated religious holidays, and never gotten close to people who do–I was struck by the whole thing. In fact, this reminded me of a stanza from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which says:
The last temptation is the greatest treason,
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
In other words, is it enough to assist another person regardless of the reason for doing so? I think the problem is that intention ultimately drives outcomes. In my line of work, for instance, if the goal of providing loans to low-income people is to convert them to my point of view, then at some point that attitude will reduce my effectiveness. Consider the case of Mother Theresa. As she approaches official recognition as a Saint, there has been some pushback. Christopher Hitches famously wrote about her hypocrisy, and a recent Huffington Post article argued that:
To canonize Mother Teresa would be to seal the lid on her problematic legacy, which includes forced conversion, questionable relations with dictators, gross mismanagement, and actually, pretty bad medical care. Worst of all, she was the quintessential white person expending her charity on the third world — the entire reason for her public image, and the source of immeasurable scarring to the postcolonial psyche of India and its diaspora.
Means and Ends
In short, a family in a minivan isn’t the point. The point is that the ends don’t justify the means. If we truly want to do good in the world, then how we go about it is just as important as what we achieve. More than that, if our philosophy and approach are dubious, it is unlikely that we will ultimately do any good. This holds true whether we are volunteering, working for a nonprofit or the government, engaging in civil disobedience, or simply trying to lead a moral life.
So yes, do the right deed, but also do it for the right reason!