Good Deeds Going Awry

It’s really a joy being part of a community. I’ve had a bad cough the past week, and in the past few days, more people brought me soup and crackers or offered to run errands than in all the time I was housebound with my mangled arm.

I’m not worried about paying the favors back or fore (I know the common phrase is “pay it forward,” but that terminology only works if one also says “pay it backward,” and we don’t.) When people need help that I can give, I will do so — it’s all about being part of the community.

Or is it?

I recently watched the movie Pay it Forward. (If you haven’t seen the flick and want to, don’t read ahead. Major spoiler!!)

The movie is about a kid who gets the idea of doing good for people and then having them pay it fore rather than back. As a concept, it’s kind of cool, as long as the person who did you the favor knows you’re going to pay it to someone else rather than to them. (Not that we do favors for others expecting to be paid back, but it is nice when they in turn do favors for us — it helps cement the community bond.)

The kid ends up dead (he tried to rescue a friend from bullies, and got knifed). The finale of the movie shows hundreds of people coming to the house bearing flowers and candles. What was supposed to be a tear-jerking moment, showing all the people whose lives the kid had touched, just made me shake my head. There is no way such a display could bring more than a momentary comfort to the mother. In the cold light of day (and the dark of night), she would rather have her son than this evidence of his impact.

I also had to shake my head at this proof of the old adage: no good deed goes unpunished.

The movie reminded me of a CSI show in which Grissom told a story about a guy who found a spider swimming in his toilet. For a couple of mornings, the guy watched the spider struggling to survive the maelstrom of flushing. One morning, the guy decided to rescue the spider. He took it out of the water and set it on the floor. The next day, he found the spider dead. “Why,” Grissom asked, “did the spider die? Because one life impinged on another.”

Yep. No good deed goes unpunished. In the movie, the doer died, in the show, the do-ee did. Generally, no one dies after doing good deeds, but occasionally, as in these examples, the good deed backfires. Sometimes the favor leads to demands and expectations, and when those expectations aren’t met, the benefactor is seen as an evil-doer rather than a do-gooder. Other times the punishment is benign: people resent the interference or are simply ungrateful.

Come to think of it, the destruction of my arm that I mentioned above is another example of a good deed being punished — if I had stood my ground and not done the dance performance as I wished, I’d still have a perfect arm, but because I did a good deed (performed in place of someone who couldn’t make it) I have a humpty-dumpty arm.

I just hope no one is going to be punished for bringing me soup and crackers. I certainly appreciate the favor, don’t resent it, won’t expect more than what was offered.

I’ll pay the favors both fore and aft.

And I’ll hope that none of our good deeds go awry and that we all survive intact.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

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