One of my favorite expressions, particularly after I have been as sweet and as good as possible in a situation and have been surprised by the ingratitude of the persons involved is, “No good deed goes unpunished.” I can think of several times in my life as an educator when I have made hard decisions that I know were in the best interest of the student, the child, but an interfering parent punished me, because she could not see beyond the present. To live cynically is easy, but to live generously and to believe that we have a responsibility to live out the ethics of reciprocity—do on to others, as you would have them do on to you—is hard. When one knows that good deeds are punished, the next obvious questions is, “Why put oneself out there?”
My answer, I suppose, lies in the belief that no act of kindness, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is wasted. This belief is best illustrated, perhaps, by this oft told Aesop Fable:
“A lion was awakened from sleep by a Mouse running over his face. Rising up angrily, he caught him and was about to kill him, when the Mouse piteously entreated, saying: “If you would only spare my life, I would be sure to repay your kindness.” The Lion laughed and let him go. It happened shortly after this that the Lion was caught by some hunters, who bound him by strong ropes to the ground. The Mouse, recognizing his roar, came and gnawed the rope with his teeth and set him free, exclaiming:
‘You ridiculed the idea of my ever being able to help you, expecting to receive from me any repayment of your favor; now you know that it is possible for even a Mouse to con benefits on a Lion.’” http://www.aesopfables.com/cgi/aesop1.cgi?3&TheLionandtheMouse&lionmouse.jpg
A dear friend posted on his Facebook page that he refused to live a life in which “no good deed goes unpunished,” and in a deeply cynical moment, I responded that my experiences suggests his naivety. Shame on me, for this afternoon, I had occasion to experience that truth, that no act of kindness is ever wasted, when I met with a potential employer. I had not remembered her, but she enthusiastically greeted me and reminded me that more than a decade ago, when she was looking for assistance with a project, she was directed to speak with me, and I welcomed her to my school with open arms. She never forgot that, so when a mutual friend called her and asked her if she would meet with me, she eagerly assented, because she remembered fondly, my kindness. Of course, that I had been kind to our mutual friend, is one of the reasons that the connection was made, as well as the fact that my kindness to a former student—who worked for her—suggested to speak with me. Small, seemingly insignificant acts of kindness, done as a matter of course, done because that is a core belief of mine, yields results later.
Education for me has always been the sowing of seeds: as a teacher, we throw seeds on the ground, hoping that the loam is rich, is fertile and ready to care for the seed. As we all know, sometimes the soil is ready, and sometimes it isn’t, but one can never think that sowing those seeds is a waste: no one knows when the seeds will bloom, just as no one knows when a single act of kindness will blossom into a forest of love and compassion. Or, as Amelia Earhart more eloquently opined, “No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.”
And our attitude about the world we inhabit speaks volumes about the world that we will inherit. If we see only cruelty, anger, selfishness in our fellow brother’s actions, then we won’t be disappointed. If we choose to see, however, kindness, joy, and altruism, in our fellow sister’s actions, then we won’t be disappointed either. Another wonderful story illustrates this point:
“A traveler came upon an old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the countryman, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment.
‘What sort of people live in the next town?’ asked the stranger.
‘What were the people like where you’ve come from?’ replied the farmer, answering the question with another question.
‘They were a bad lot. Troublemakers all, and lazy too. The most selfish people in the world, and not a one of them to be trusted. I’m happy to be leaving the scoundrels.’
‘Is that so?’ replied the old farmer. ‘Well, I’m afraid that you’ll find the same sort in the next town.’
Disappointed, the traveler trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.
Some time later another stranger, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk. ‘What sort of people live in the next town?’ he asked.
‘What were the people like where you’ve come from?’ replied the farmer once again.
‘They were the best people in the world. Hard-working, honest, and friendly. I’m sorry to be leaving them.’
‘Fear not,’ said the farmer. ‘You’ll find the same sort in the next town.’
There is a powerful poem by Marianne Williamson that I am sure I shall discuss some other time, but one of the lines fits here: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We have tremendous power to shape the world around us, and if we choose to believe that no good deed goes unpunished, we are correct. But if we choose to believe that no act of kindness, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is wasted, we are correct. Like Neo in the Matrix, we have the opportunity to choose our path. Choose wisely.