The Complications of Good Intentions
When you simplify things and go minimalist, it is natural to let go of mindless consumption or activities that don’t contribute to your life in a meaningful way. A lot of people, in fact, replace old, wasteful activities with quality time with family and friends, and replace shopping with good works. You can throw yourself a birthday party where the gifts are restricted to cash donations that will provide fresh water to a desperate community, or you can work on a much smaller scale and simply take the time to bring your spouse his or her first cup of morning coffee in bed. Most good deeds will fall somewhere in-between.
The road to hell, brick by brick.
Sometimes doing something good doesn’t end up quite right. The thanks are lukewarm, or missing altogether. Or instead of gratitude, you receive outright objection or resentment. Here you are, doing what you are convinced is the right thing, the needed thing, the kind thing, and the result is as if you did just the opposite. Your good intentions are completely misread, and in turn you wonder why in the world are you even bothering?
Who do these ungrateful recipients of your time, thought and planning think they are? Even if you didn’t get it exactly right, couldn’t they at least allow for the fact that you meant well–that your intentions were good?
And that’s the problem: good intentions. The road to hell really is paved with them.
When we spot an opportunity to be thoughtful, helpful or generous, we think in terms of seeing someone’s need and fulfilling it. Nothing wrong with that, right? Isn’t that what we’re taught to think of as good deeds? Um, yes, as far as it goes. This way of looking at things depends greatly on shared values and knowing the other party well, quite possibly better than they know themselves.
Just because we see a need doesn’t mean the recipient does. Giving Grandma a new winter coat because she’s been wearing the same one for the last fifteen years is a need you see that you can address. When the dear old thing looks at your gift with an expression between WTF and panic, it’s easy to feel unappreciated. You might not have known that she sees no reason to stop wearing the last coat Grandpa bought her before he went to that great fishing hole in the sky, and feels that you’re being awfully pushy.
The old adage, “No good deed goes unpunished,” probably arose as a result of helping someone declutter, even at their request. You think you’re just standing there with a cardboard box to load up with unneeded stuff, and the owner of said stuff suddenly reacts like you’ve actually brought a backhoe and a dump truck. We’ve all experienced variations on this.
It’s not easy to step back from our own point of view, to get our own egos out of the way when it comes to doing the right thing. In cases where moral or legal judgments need to be made, such as calling the cops or the animal welfare folks, we accept that the party we’re trying to stop is going to be very unhappy and that there is a greater good at stake. The hard stuff is when we think we are doing things that will make the recipient happy.
Sometimes the problem lies in the motive, rather than in the intent. “Intent” would be doing something to elicit a particular result. “Motive,” however, would be the reason why you wanted that particular result. On the surface, it might seem you just want the recipient to be happy. But why? What are you getting out of making the recipient happy in that way? Are you doing it because “good deeds” make you feel good, because they make you look good, because they make you feel empowered, because they make you feel like you belong, because they send a message, or because they’re part of a mission or bucket list you’ve set for yourself ? Or because they _______ (fill in the blank)?
Motives are seldom pure, no matter how much we claim them to be. This isn’t a cynical observation, but I think an honest one, and the first thing to do when confronted by a negative reaction to good intentions is to be honest to ourselves about our own motivations in the first place. It’s the process of gratifying those deep-down motivations that limits the range of actions we are likely to take when performing a good deed, and in fact limits the extent to which we even understand what constitutes a good deed to the recipient! It’s no wonder, then, that misunderstandings occur, boundaries are crossed, and complications ensue.
We aren’t mind-readers, so there’s a limit to knowing others’ true desires. We can’t entirely predict their responses to what we do, but we can consider our own response when confronted by the opposite of the desired effect. The angrier or more frustrated we feel when we are misunderstood or unappreciated, the more suspect our original motivations. That anger is an indication that we’re too much inside our own heads, acting too much from our own point of view, in the first place, to the extent that we’ve completely missed how to connect with the recipient in ways or terms that they understand.
Sometimes recipients really are jerks, and not at all deserving of our well-intentioned efforts. There are the people that are impossible to please, the ones that take everything for granted, and the ones that can’t take pleasure in nice things being done for them because they now feel obligated to you. Nonetheless, it is not fair to the recipient of your largesse to be expected to react in exactly the right way, every time. Sometimes their negative reaction is because your motivation is more obvious to them than it even is to you.
The simplest thing is not avoiding good deeds, but knowing yourself. Know what you really want to achieve, and be bottom-line honest about your own motivations before imposing them on others with the expectation of thanks, kudos, laurels, or even unacknowledged good results. Knowing where your motivations end and others’ needs begin will help you make better choices in the forms your good works take. Human relations is a bumpy enough road at the best of times, but self-awareness will keep it from veering off course to places we’d really rather not go.