1. Something goes viral.
2. We all get swept up in it.
3. Some people caution that we’re not actually being as helpful as we think, and we may even be doing harm.
4. Some people shout those cautioners down while others rebut in a more analytical manner.
5. Most of us keep on getting swept up in the fun, but some of us are now confused about whether this is a good thing or not.
6. Something new goes viral!
We are still in the throes of the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge,” but far along enough that there’s been plenty of countervailing voices, which is part of an overall caution against what some are calling “voluntourism,” or making leisure out of the latest cause or tragedy. See here for an example of the former and here for an example of the latter.
It’s a fair question: does it matter what we do, or is the fact that we’re trying to do good good enough? Many years ago, a good friend of mine explored this question from a Christian lens, when he wrote his thesis on whether short-term missions trips offer any good at all to the places they are intended to help (it is assumed they are a boost for the traveler himself).
It seems to me that everything boils down to motives. If we want a shortcut way to feel good about ourselves, or make ourselves look good before others, or assuage some sort of guilt we feel, then I think that negates the fact that we did a good deed or promoted a good cause or donated some money. Because we can do those things in ways that are unsustainable, erroneous, or downright harmful. And even if we make a positive contribution, we aren’t any further along in our own personal development whereby we have increased our capacity to do even more good tomorrow; if anything, as was noted in one of the links above, we can sometimes feel we’re up one on the universe and therefore can do less good elsewhere or even justify some bad deeds in exchange.
Conversely, if our desire is to contribute, and more so to learn exactly what we are contributing to and how we can contribute even more, then I think that even if we make mistakes and stumble along, we and the world are better off. Because we won’t think we’re done and don’t have to do more, we’ll have truly shed light on the real issues behind the cause and how we can make progress on it, and we’ll be better positioned to make real change in our lives to do even more good tomorrow.
This takes real effort. Which means we can’t necessarily jump on every cause that comes along. And that’s OK. Outright ignorance is not excused, but neither ought we expect ourselves to be equally informed and engaged on every single issue. What matters is to have a mindset that we can make a difference, to take steps to put that into action each day, and to do so in ways that make us feel good but not in ways that make us feel like we’re done.
So here’s hoping that the good feeling we feel when we give is not the euphoria of social media popularity, checking a box for having done our good deed of the day, or of having a guilty conscience soothed. Rather, let it be the deep and humbling joy of knowing that you did something that mattered, participated in something bigger than yourself, and grew in ability and motive to make an even bigger dent tomorrow.