“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ~Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago
I love bacon. Particularly when it is cooked to crispness. The taste of that mixture of salt and fat is mouth-wateringly good. Alas, I eat it rarely because I know that the fat is not very good for me. The problem is that the fat and lean meat in bacon is too interwoven to be effectively separated—not to mention the fact that it would not taste the same if there were a way to remove the fat layers. The fat is simply a part of what bacon is, for better or for worse.
Human beings are much the same in the way that our strengths and weaknesses, our good and evil, our pure and impure motives are too intertwined to ever be separated out into separated piles. While humans vary from one to another in the proportion of the traits that appear in us—like bacon that may vary in its proportion of fat to lean meat—none of us are free from imperfections in our thoughts, actions, words, or motivations.
One of the downsides of being as introspective as I am is that I am unusually well aware of the bacon-like nature of the motives behind my actions. Even when I perform an action that would unquestionably be deemed as good, I am still aware of the mix of pure and impure motives that prompted the action and the inability to separate those motives into discrete categories.
I may do something to help someone who needs the helping hand without receiving any direct payment for my deed. And yet, behind my motive of wanting to help a fellow human may also motives of wanting to be seen as a good person, wanting the good feeling that comes from having done a good deed, wanting to help the person because I can’t bear to watch their pain without doing something about it, or even wanting to do a good deed to allay some guilt I may be feeling about other times when I chose less-honorable actions. With that mix of all those different motives going on behind the scenes, can I really take credit for having done a good thing? Is it still a good deed if the motives are so mixed and impure?
This becomes even more challenging when the deed that I have done (or the words I have said or the decision that I have made) falls less obviously into the exclusive category of good, as is so often the case in the messiness of human life. To use my example from yesterday of offering encouragement to someone who is discouraged, the ultimate classification of that action as good or bad may not be clear-cut, depending on whether the person even wishes to be offered encouragement or whether the encouragement offered has a beneficial effect on the recipient. But the question of my motives in offering the encouragement becomes even murkier.
I may be offering the encouragement to someone else because I know that I am so often desperate for a drop of encouragement from others when I am discouraged, so I try to do unto others as I want it done unto me. That’s a good thing, right? Well, maybe. If my desire to receive encouragement from others stems from an unhealthy and needy lack of confidence on my part (as has been suggested), then using that as a measure of what I should do for others is not a good thing. There’s also the issue that sometimes I know that another person does not want to be treated in the way that I prefer to be treated, so the golden rule argument falls apart here. I would do better to treat them as they wish to be treated rather than as I wish to be treated.
To make it even more challenging, there are other possibly mixed motivations that may be factoring into my choice. It is possible that I try to encourage people not out of a desire to do good unto them but out of an inability to sit with their pain. Or it may be that I encourage people at least a little bit because I think it will cause them to like me better because I am doing something (that I see as) kind for them. Or it may be that I am trying to fill some need to see myself as a good person by offering unto others the kind of encouragement that I want to receive. It’s even possible that I offer encouragement to others in the hope that it will make it more likely that they will do the same for me the next time I need it. The reality is that there is almost always at least a drop of all of those motives (and probably even more than I am still unconscious of) that are influencing my choice in the moment.
So is my “gift” of offering encouragement to others a good and healthy thing that I bring to the world? Or am I imposing my own unhealthy needs on other people? It’s most likely some of both, depending on the situation.
And that’s just one example of the many choices I make every day about what to do or say in situations that I encounter. Every one of them has the same level of complexity in the determination of right/wrong, good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, pure/impure. It not infrequently paralyzes me.
With all of this uncertainty and awareness of the mixture of motives that may be underlying something, it is particularly challenging to find any clarity about whether the way I show up in the world is healthy or helpful to anyone. Because, of course, it’s never wholly anything.
In the end, it’s all bacon. But not nearly so delicious.
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