Yes, it’s a play of sorts on the title of this book. It was a very popular “inspirational” when it was first published. However, as the great Robert A. Heinlein has told us (and as I fancifully exploited in this tome) the universe consists of dualities: pairs of opposed forces, tendencies, values, what-have-you. And so on this fourth Sunday of Advent in the Year of Our Lord 2016, I propose to meet Harold Kushner’s “inspirational” with its polar opposite (feel free to call it a “perspirational”).
As a rule, humans tend not to like being ordered around. For some, that approaches an absolute value: one offense is enough to bring us to blows. I’m one such: an anarchist from my genes to my few remaining hair follicles. My greatest sorrow was the discovery that government is inevitable. (See these books for a fictional exegesis. And before you ask: Yes, there will be at least one more volume in that series.)
Yet there are many perfectly good-hearted people who cannot restrain their need to “fix” others’ lives. And in one of life’s more painful ironies, they have a habit of attaching themselves to nasty old bastards like me, who’d as soon shoot them as say hello.
I’m not talking about politicians or other government functionaries. They have a disease that operates at a higher plane of abstraction. The folks I have in mind don’t seek official positions; they merely seek individual victims upon whom to establish their personal benevolent dictatorships. And they just about always succeed in finding and fastening on one of us who’d run to the ends of the Earth to avoid them.
Good people doing bad things...out of a desire to “help.”
Quite a number of folks, however, do operate at that “higher plane of abstraction” without feeling any desire to attain a public office. These “There oughta be a law” types can become very well known. Some become regionally notorious and strive to capitalize on their notoriety. Others merely annoy the living daylights out of their live-and-let-live neighbors, repeatedly, over one “issue” after another.
The creation of “issues” by such persons often remains unseen right up to the point where it evokes a town council or county legislature meeting aimed at invading someone’s rights. Moreover, all too often that meeting of officious “public servants” takes place sub rosa, such that the affected parties remain ignorant of it until it’s produced a fait accompli.
I have in mind one such person who inflicted the Army Corps of Engineers on a neighbor who dared to dig out, line, equip, and stock a koi pond in his backyard. Apparently there are laws and associated regulations that mandate such intrusions on anyone who dares to imagine that putting such a thing on his own property is his own BLEEP!ing business and no one else’s. You can’t imagine the tumult that inflicted upon the neighborhood involved. The initiator was unmoved. “The law is the law,” he liked to say...and he sincerely believed he was helping his neighbor to stay out of trouble with the law.
Good people doing bad things...in the name of “justice.”
Finally for today, let’s consider the thoughtlessly “compassionate.” In its most common form of ill thought out “generosity,” it’s produced larger social maladies than anything but warfare. Yet we are regularly bombarded with exhortations to “compassion” as if there were no imaginable way that seemingly positive attribute might go wrong.
Most of the “charity” urged upon us today is destructive. Yet most of those who exhort us to ever greater “compassion” toward “the needy” have no stain on their souls. The defect is in their understanding.
A brilliant essay written by a dear friend puts it beautifully:
Help can cripple or kill you.
There aren't many people who get that. It's so easy to allow someone else to carry your burden for you. It's so easy to allow yourself to become dependent on other people's kindness and generosity. If you're cursed with an accepting nature, you can become a charity addict as easily as breathing. It forecloses your future; everything you might have achieved slips away, forgotten in the relief of not having to work for your own security or prosperity.
It's very important -- critical -- not to help when help is not needed, or not appreciated, or not wanted, or wanted much too much. I know, my Church says otherwise, but I have to disagree. Charity to good people in sudden, unexpected need that's not their fault, who are uncomfortable at being the objects of charity, is usually all right. Charity to people who've never shown any initiative or prudence is always wrong. Good-hearted people have done more harm through generosity than all the murderers that have ever lived. Maybe even including the government murderers.
In 2014, the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services, supposedly chartered to alleviate poor health and material want among the less fortunate, spent $450 billion on health care for its clients and an additional $175 billion on assorted “public assistance” disbursements. In addition, private charitable organizations – firms whose nominal reason for being is to provide help to the “needy” –take in billions of dollars each year. In most cases, most of the money goes to salaries and “operating expenses,” but even what remains usually does more harm than good. Thomas Mackay put it best more than a century ago:
...the cause of pauperism is relief. We shall not get rid of pauperism by extending the sphere of State relief...On the contrary, its adoption would increase our pauperism, for as is often said, we can have exactly as many paupers as the country chooses to pay for. [Thomas Mackay, “Methods of Social Reform”]
In consequence of all this “compassion,” more persons depend on “charity” for part or all of their sustenance than ever before in American history. The “compassionate” among us claim that the trend proves that more money is urgently required. I have no doubt that most of them are sincerely well-intentioned – those not employed by a government agency, at least – but the harm they’ve done and continue to do is staggering.
Good people doing an enormously bad thing – destroying the initiative and self-reliance of others – out of unthinking “compassion.”
Primum non nocere, runs the physicians’ maxim: First, do no harm. Good, sincerely well-intentioned people are not exempt from this constraint. He who does harm is responsible for that consequence even if he thought he was doing good. Yet our social devolution has gone so far that we keep silent rather than point that out to those whose good intentions come a-cropper. Indeed, it’s considered the height of rudeness to hurt such persons’ feelings.
The New Year approaches, and with it the usual exhortations to make resolutions to improve this or that about oneself. For many of us, a resolution to mind one’s own business and trust others to mind theirs is the best one could make – a priceless if belated Christmas gift to those around them.