why we do what we do

Why do we do what we do? I think particularly of why we do kind things, good things, generous things, for others? I wonder. I once had a group of parents who told me that they would teach Sunday School if the church would hold a thank you party for them, catered by the church. The suggestion here was we could do something kind but we would need to be compensated with thanks and affirmation.

I also know people who tell me they do not understand how illness could ever come their way. In their 70’s they are diagnosed with cancer or dementia and this somehow undercuts their view of how life is supposed to work. “I worked hard all my life, I never lied, I was generous with others, and I never took more than what was owed to me.” Again, the suggestion here is that God, or some other source of divine justice, has let you down because you are ill. In those conversations I wonder if the person has forgotten that billions and billions have lived Holy lives only to be the victims of murder, cancer, neglect, poverty, genocide. Why would we expect to immune to the same predicament as every other human? What makes us special?

I always come back to grace. If we are loved first than there is nothing we can do to justify our existence. As a believer I affirm that we are made in the image of love, that this love is a gift, and that no effort or good behaviour on our part makes us any more or any less loved. My passion to carry out kind acts, to help others, does not come with bitterness or a sense of reciprocity. I am not saying to myself, “I better be compensated with good health for all this do-gooding I am carrying out.” Nor do I say, “I better get some affirmation for this kindness or I am not bothering with it anymore!”

Why do we need a reason to be kind or helpful to others beyond “returning the favour” or “the thrill of compassion”? For me, having grown feeling I had so little to offer, had so few skills, it was such a thrill to find something I could do that was helpful to others. I got a huge kick out seeing a positive impact that came from my action. Further, I know so many people who die young, so many saints who live through pain and heartache, that I make no connection between kindness and a longer or healthier life. I am happy to live another day, I never assume my behaviour, good or bad, has an impact on my mortality. It’s not that I think “God will take you when God wants you” either. That assessment never made sense to me either, why would God need me and what exactly does such this say about God’s character?

I am content to accept the mystery that is human suffering. I do know that some suffering makes us more compassionate, but not all. And I would never say any specific suffering was given to someone for a specific reason. I do not believe this is in God’s character. I do believe there is a purpose to our lives, that there is a purpose to the human condition. That purpose is experienced in my life as compassion, creativity and joy. I believe how we respond to life’s challenges draws us closer to these basic human conditions.

So when another is suffering or in need of assistance my response can draw from me compassion, creativity and joy. And I think, work and plan to make it so. No need for a party, no need for an assurance of an easier life. The one thing I need is to be joined in this quest by a group of like-minded sisters and brothers. A church, a non-profit, an organization, where we together make a difference. It’s what we were made for.