On Good Deeds

Clare Boothe Luce once said "No good deed goes unpunished." From a cynic's perspective, the response is "Amen, sister!"

I'd like to think that the sentiment behind that witty statement was not fueled by selfishness and cynicism, but it is.  Usually there is an expectation by the deed do-gooder that some sort of recognition for the act is necessary or a positive response from the recipient is required. They come away shocked when no one notices or when met with hostility or sadness.

The television show "Friends" did an episode in 1998 which exercised and illustrated that very concept. Doing good is inherently a selfish act. To set the scene: Joey, the actor has volunteered to work the phone banks on the PBS annual fund drive. Early he admits his intent is to help raise funds for the station but also to get exposure on television for more work opportunities.  The exchange between Phoebe and himself explains how this deed is selfish and how other acts of kindness are as well:

Joey: I'm sorry Pheebs, I just, y'know, I just wanted to do a good deed. Like-like you did with the babies.
Phoebe: This isn't a good deed, you just wanted to get on TV! This is totally selfish.
Joey: Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! What about you, having those babies for your brother? Talk about selfish!
Phoebe: What-what are you talking about?!
Joey: Well, yeah, it was a really nice thing and all, but it made you feel really good right?
Phoebe: Yeah. So?
Joey: It made you feel good, so that makes it selfish. Look, there's no unselfish good deeds, sorry.
Phoebe: Yes there are! There are totally good deeds that are selfless.
Joey: Well, may I ask for one example?
Phoebe: Yeah, it's… Y'know there's—no you may not!
Joey: That's because all people are selfish.
Phoebe: Are you calling me selfish?!
Joey: …. Yeah, well sorry to burst that bubble, Pheebs, but selfless good deeds don't exist. Okay? …
Phoebe: I'm gonna find a selfless good dead. I'm gonna beat you, you evil genius.

I had to smile during that exchange because Freud first indicated the self-centeredness of all people in his theory of Id, Ego and Superego. This episode calls that out to let people examine the ways in which selfishness exists even when the intent is selfless. Phoebe promises to find a way to prove Joey wrong and in her attempt she fails:

Phoebe: I cannot believe I can't find a selfless good deed! Y'know that old guy that lives next to me? Well, I snuck over there and-and raked up all the leaves on his front stoop. But he caught me and force-fed me cider and cookies. Then I felt wonderful. That old jackass!
Rachel: Maybe Joey's right. Maybe all good deeds are selfish.
Phoebe: I will find a selfless good deed! 'Cause I just gave birth to three children and I will not let them be raised in a world where Joey is right!

We tend to do nice things for others not so much for how it makes that person feel; but how it makes us feel. The more positive the impact, the more likely we are to do good deeds for others.  Phoebe later tries again and gives Joey a status update thinking if she did something which made her feel bad for the good of another then it would be selfless:

[Scene: The Telethon, Joey's phone rings and he answers it.]

Joey: (in a bored voice) PBS telethon.
Phoebe: (on phone from Central Perk) Hey Joey, I just wanted to let you know that I found a selfless good deed. I just went down to the park and I let a bee sting me.
Joey: What?! What good is that gonna do anybody?
Phoebe: Well, it helps the bee look tough in front of his bee friends. The bee is happy and I am definitely not.
Joey: Now, y'know the bee probably died after he stung ya.
Phoebe: (Thinks for a moment.) Aw, dammit! (Slams the phone down.)

This attempt shows how little thought into the result of the deed can actually do more harm than good. In this case, no one benefited. Sometimes we need to think through our actions to see if we may be doing a disservice. Know the person for which you are helping and think through if you are really 'helping' them. Giving food to a food bank may seem like helping, but giving money is more helpful. In the short term the food bank throws out most of the donated food items due to expiration and would rather have cash so they can stock shelves intelligently.

Phoebe tries one more time…

[Scene: The Telethon, Joey answers his ringing phone.]

Joey: (in an unenthusiastic voice) PBS Telethon.
Phoebe: (on phone) Hi Joey.
Joey: Hey Pheebs!
Phoebe: I would like to make a pledge. I would like to donate $200.
Joey: $200? Are you sure Pheebs? I mean, after what Sesame Street did to ya?
Phoebe: Oh, I'm still mad at them but I also now that they bring happiness to lots of kids who's moms didn't kill themselves, so by supporting them, I'm doing a good thing, but I'm not happy about it. So there, a selfless good deed.
Joey: And you don't feel a little good about donating the money?
Phoebe: No, it sucks. I was saving up to buy a hamster.
Joey: A hamster? What, those things are like 10 bucks.
Phoebe: Yeah, not the one I had my eye on.
Gary Collins: (on TV.) It looks like we have surpassed last year's pledge total! Thank you viewers! The pledge that did it was taken by one of our volunteers…(He walks over to where Joey is sitting.) Oh boy! And may I say one of our sharpest dressed volunteers, (Joey stands up.) Mr. Joseph Tribbiani!
Phoebe: Oh, look-look, Joey's on TV! Isn't that great? My pledge got Joey on TV! Oh that makes me feel—Oh no! (Realizes that her deed made her happy and therefore it's selfish and covers her mouth in horror.)

So the show stood by the statement that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed. I tend to agree. But I also like feeling good. Where I see good deeds go wrong is when the deed do-gooder is showboating their action, whether in a post on their preferred social media account or recording it on YouTube. I admire those who keep their acts private and anonymous. No one needs to know but you. Not even the person/people you are helping.

My husband does not understand my sense of philanthropy and feels like the only charity that should be donated to is the family itself. I cannot live that way because I like to be happy. Which is selfish. I keep donating my time, money and goods to help because I like feeling good. I just don't tell everyone when I do it. I don't want to be punished, or judged and I certainly don't want pats on the back. I already did that when I did the deed.

Make sense?

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