Selfless Good Deed?

December 12, 2013

“Where charity stands watching and faith hold wide the door the dark night wakes – the glory breaks, Christmas comes once more.” – Phillips Brooks

Non profits ramp up their marketing efforts during the holiday season in order to benefit from the time of the year associated with giving. Something about the lights and the trees, the glow of the fire, the familiar tunes, and nostalgic traditions swell our hearts with so much joy it can’t help but spread good cheer. Even though gifts for the family hits our pocketbooks hard, we manage to find room in the budget to give a little something to the needy. It just feels right. It feels really good, actually, which brings me to my Philosophy 101 question: is there ever a selfless good deed? Or, for the non-philosophy-inclined, you know, The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS. Phoebe tries to prove to Joey she can help others purely for the sake of others, but every good deed she does inadvertently comes back to her with some sort of reward for herself.

In order to properly answer the question, is there a selfless good deed? one has to meticulously dissect the motivation behind the good deed; whether the motivation is ultimately for others or is there a layer somewhere dedicated to selfish gain (warm fuzzy feelings, admiration from people, etc.) This exercise in self scrutiny can be fruitful, but also can turn a bit narcissistic. Because really, is it more important you have pure motives, or the homeless gets a warm meal? And if you somehow manage to whittle away all the impure motives for doing a good deed, then you are suddenly standing on superior moral ground, thereby defeating the purpose of trying to become unselfish. Following still?

This all just gives me a headache. Can we do good deeds without splitting hairs over ulterior motives? For your Holiday Good Deed Guide, here are three Do’s and Don’ts to filter through your motivations. Refer to it before your next good deed:

  1. Don’t do a good deed out of guilt. No. No. No. This is ugly baggage from a twisted sin-accounting religion business. Doing good deeds out of guilt will feed little buggers of resentment who will grow into big monsters of either burnout, hate, or pretentious moral high ground. Who needs that for the holidays?
  2. Do a good deed out of vision. Step back and look at the bigger picture. Do you dream of a better world? More food for the hungry? More peace among the conflicted? More support for the lonely? More compassion for the ill? Whatever the dream, let that fuel the good deed you choose to invest in. The bigger picture will dilute the petty squabbles over who’s selfish and selfless. What matters most stays primary.
  3. Don’t do a good deed because it’s what’s always been done. Each year you take the kids to the soup kitchen? By all means, keep the tradition. Also, don’t keep it, unless you want to. Sometimes the biggest enemy of the best is the good. Just because it’s something good you’ve always done might not be what’s good for you this year. Try something outside of the box and flex some imagination. Maybe this year, instead of going to the soup kitchen, try inviting someone inside the home. Or if the holiday season simply demands too much of your time and sanity – do a good deed to yourself and take a break. It’ll be okay.
  4. Do a good deed by following the example of others. The benefit of all our share-happy social media comes into play here. We can so easily share experiences and stories of good deeds. Just remember we all have different personalities and circumstances – one size doesn’t fit all. Adopt others’ benevolent practices, but if it doesn’t work for you or your family, drop it next year. Refer to #3.
  5. Don’t do a good deed unless you’re sure it’s a good deed. What you are doing, is it actually helpful? Are you speaking the other person’s love language? Are you being sensitive to the local culture? Are you giving to responsible organizations? Talk to the recipient of your good deed, if possible, or a representative of your recipient. Good deeds are only good if they say so.
  6. Do a good deed – again next week, month, and year. After all, a seasonal friend who only shows up during the holidays, is a crappy friend indeed.

Have yourself an altruistic holiday season!