Why do we give? Why do we love? Why do we do good?
I used to think the answer to this question was simple: empathy. We are charitable with our time and money because we have compassion on those who are less fortunate than us. And in its purest forms, doing good IS about this. Its about selflessness. Its about seeing to the needs and wants of others ahead of our own. Its about kindness. Its about gratitude for what we’ve been blessed with and extending that blessing beyond just ourselves. But how often does doing good really happen in this way? How often are there ulterior motives behind our acts of charity? I never thought I was like this until recently.
I’m at a point in my life where I’m very interested in what other people are up to. In their personal lives, in their spiritual lives, but also in their vocational lives. Its interesting to observe folks at different points in their stories, not only because I can often glean some wisdom through observation, but also because I like comparing myself to others. And I mean that in the worst possible way.
I like inflating my ego. I like viewing folks and thinking: “man…I’m happy I’m not THAT way.” It makes me feel better about my choices and it reassures me when I’m questioning them. This practice in and of itself is repulsive, but its not what I’m trying to address here.
The flip side of searching for ways to inflate my own ego is jealousy. Just as I come across people whom I feel somehow “better than,” I also find folks whom I somehow feel “less than.” I find myself thinking: “man…I wish I was more like THAT.” But instead of trying to emulate these people, I grow to resent them. I follow their stories and start to envy their capacity to do good. Instead of rejoicing in a social benefit, I invent social capital and I fear the expiration of good work.
Let me try to explain it another way: I have plenty of friends doing amazing things, and yet instead of being happy for them and celebrating their good work, I’m jealous. Instead of rejoicing I’m filled with regret for somehow not “getting there first.” I’m fearful that there will be no more good left for me to do. I’m afraid all the causes are being taken and I’m convicted that my work isn’t as meaningful.
This mindset of course brings me back to the question of why. Why do we do good? And as hard as it is for me to admit, my answer has generally been this: I want to be the hero. I want to be remembered for building great things and for doing lots of good. I don’t believe desiring those things is always inherently bad, but I also don’t think using them as fuel is an effective means of motivation. Legacies fade and heroes get replaced. The real fuel has always been love. Its compassion. Its empathy. Not because it comes naturally, but because it doesn’t. And so in learning how to love, we no longer need to produce fuel from within ourselves, but rather, the struggle and the injustice propel us forward. They force us to take action.
So again, I think we have to ask ourselves: why do we do good? Is it for our own egos? Are our motives pure? Do we want to build organizations and movements to feel better about ourselves or to see real systemic change? In the answer we will find whether we are truly doing good or rather just doing well. The first is a verb directed outward. The second is an adjective directed inward. I think we’d all be a little better off as verbs…enacting love and justice simply because we should. Because kindness is deserved by everyone regardless of context or history or identification.