Doing Good or Looking Good

I have made this point before in this space but wanted to elaborate further today.  I often wonder (about others AND myself) if we truly want to do good in the world, or if our primary objective is to be seen by others as doing good independent of whether what we are doing is actually effecting real change.  It is only natural, as social creatures, to want people to see what we care about and to see that we care about it.  After all, it's what mobilizes more helpers and provides us with the encouragement and support we need to keep doing what we're doing.  But when are we guilty of taking our eyes off the prize and engaging in do-gooding simply to attract positive attention and feel good about ourselves?  Let me offer a few things that we can do to make sure that what we truly care about is not positive strokes for ourselves but positive change in the world.

1. Do something good when you know no one will see and you won't tell anyone.  To be sure, as noted above, there is something good about doing good out in public, where you can mobilize others and you yourself can be encouraged.  But every once in a while, do something good and keep it to yourself.  Examine how you feel.  Satisfied?  Affirmed?  Or empty?  If the latter, maybe too many of your eggs are in the basket of "I need people to see how righteous I am," and not enough are in the basket of "this matters to me no matter if I don't get any glory."

2. Learn from, listen to, and love others who are on the other side of an argument.  There is no shortage of easy punching bags that, depending on what circles we run in, we can score major brownie points by resisting, opposing, and vilifying them.  And, to be sure, sometimes doing good means calling out the other side for inhumanity or ignorance or idiocy.  But sometimes, personal attacks are a lazy and mean-spirited way of making ourselves feel good rather than actually contributing to doing good.  Again, sometimes engagement is not the right answer.  For example, I respect the many reasons offered by athletes who choose not to accept a visit to the White House.  But sometimes, opting out of interacting with those you oppose is the easy way out, borne of an expediency that seeks out pats on the back rather than doing the hard work of understanding an issue and its players better.

3. Play the long game.  Any real change is going to take time, maybe even longer than our lifetimes.  It takes humility to realize that people far greater than we are have spent themselves for many years and decades to make just a tiny dent in things, so we should not lose heart but nor should we expect immediate results.  It also takes focus, because we can't be spread thin and we can't sprint for a few months and expect real change to happen.  Which means we have to learn to extend grace to ourselves and others, to have seasons for self-care and to even stay on the sidelines and trust others to labor while we focus on the issues closest to our hearts.  Sound obvious, but how often have we burned with righteous anger when others don't care about our issues enough to act?  Ah, but they have their issues that they are saving their attention for, and we should let them.

4. Engage head and heart.  In some circles, all of the heat is through emotion.  In those places, learn to use your head.  In other circles, everything is an intellectual discussion.  In those places, show some emotion.  Again, sounds obvious, and yet oftentimes what happens is that we learn what gets us cheap applause and we play to the crowd rather than doing what is needed to make change.  Whether it is a reasoned argument or an impassioned screed, whatever is not celebrated but is needed, consider doing it.

In our socially media wired world, much our lives is lived in a highly curated way.  What an incredible opportunity to mobilize action and to give and receive support.  But also what an incredible temptation to focus on being seen doing good rather than, you know, just doing good.  Shout out to those faithful laborers who do their work outside of the limelight, who are respectful of those who oppose them, who play the long game, and who engage head and heart.

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