POSTED ON MARCH 2, 2011:
A life of good decisions might never offer earthly returns
There they were in the midst of delivering groceries to a needy family while the roads were covered with snow and ice.
As they traveled through a neighborhood that was off of the proverbial "beaten path," they knew the roads were becoming more treacherous. They, however, were on a benevolent mission. Surely they had nothing to worry about. It was just about the time these thoughts collided in the driver's head that their car got stuck. After hours of digging, pushing, and digging some more, they were free. In somewhat of a cruel irony, it was then that they realized: they had been looking for the wrong address all along.
In the words of Wicked's Elphaba Thropp, "No good deed goes unpunished." This is another way of saying, "Life is not always fair." Sometimes doing the right thing means taking a loss in one way or another. Offering kindness to others can make one vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. Good intentions often have negative results.
As children, we are often taught that there is a twofold reality to life and the choices we make. If you make good and healthy choices, work hard, do things in the correct order and treat others according to the Golden Rule, things will generally work out in a positive way. On the other hand, we are taught that bad choices, idleness, impetuousness and disrespect will bring about destructive results. This dualistic view is shattered, however, when we see someone who defies such a logical pattern.
Sometimes, the most rotten people find success on levels that are hard to believe. Many times, their success is actually a result of their rottenness. Conversely, there are many people who, for all intents and purposes, have stayed on the straight path and found destruction anyway. It seems clear that there truly are no guarantees when it comes to cause and effect.
The great epic poet, Homer, used the danger of Scylla and Charybdis, a well-known scenario from Greek mythology, to illustrate the "no good deed" phenomenon. Scylla and Charybdis were two deadly sea monsters who lived on either side of the Strait of Messina, which is between Italy and Sicily. Scylla, a six-headed monster who fed on sailors, spelled doom for any that came into her territory. Charybdis took the form of a whirlpool that would swallow entire ships.
The debacle of Scylla and Charybdis could best be described as no-win situation. When traveling their strait, ships and their sailors would always be in danger of being destroyed by one monster or the other. If a ship set its course to avoid Scylla, Charybdis would nearly always envelop it. If sailors sought to avoid Charybdis, Scylla would likely eat them. In other words, avoiding one monster meant that the other would destroy you. To travel this way was to abandon all hope.
On more than one occasion in The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is forced to navigate within range of each of the monsters. Despite losing several of his crew, Odysseus survives an attack by Scylla. Opting to endure Charybdis on the next occasion, Odysseus survives by hanging onto a tree that extended over the water. When Charybdis spit up his boat, he simply hopped on board and rowed forward.
Odysseus' struggle with the two monsters is meant to illustrate at least two things. First, there are times when each person is forced to make a decision between unpleasant choices. Second, the most tragic scenarios often include unforeseen outcomes, no matter how hopeless such situations might seem.
I've learned that the "no good deed" approach is divisive. Some people feel it is overly pessimistic, reflecting a cynical view of the world and human nature. Others see the phrase as descriptive of their own circumstances, whether past or present. If there are no guarantees, why not just do what feels good?
Interestingly, the Bible provides some commentary on this very idea. The writer of Ecclesiastes, who has historically been named as King Solomon, said, "There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 8:14-15, NIV)
Many people misquote the writer of Ecclesiastes by saying, "Life is meaningless. Eat, drink, and be glad, for tomorrow we die." This phrase does come from the Bible (Isaiah 22:13), but not in a positive sense. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes is saying: "Being good and doing good guarantees one nothing. Enjoy what God has given you and don't take your life for granted."
The main story of the Bible, in fact, reflects this idea. Jesus, who lived life at the highest level of good that one can live, and around whom all of scripture is based, is an unparalleled victim of injustice. He is the ultimate example of a righteous person who got what the wicked deserve. He is the ultimate reminder that making all the right decisions does not guarantee earthly success and popularity.
The writer or Ecclesiastes, in its conclusion, puts living right in perspective to God's order as the best investment of one's life: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, NIV)
The "no good deed" approach is both realistic and pragmatic so long as it is not fatalistic to the point of abandoning all reason and hope. On the contrary, the lack of guarantees ought to drive us to pursue more good in our lives - for we will find our fullest enjoyment when we stare inevitability in the face and survive to pursue good another day.
(-Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and Teaching Pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa.)
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