The Good That Happens to Us and the Good We Do
The whole concept of “deserve” is rooted in ancient ideas of reward and punishment, or concept of something that is owed to us – that the universe, or God, or other people are obligated to pay or repay to us. I remember an elderly woman, suffering from cancer, who was furious that the God that she’d served, she thought, honorably, had “paid her back so meanly” as she said to me. The idea that good things happen to us because we’re good, and bad things because we’re bad – well, sometimes it’s true that we earn the good or the bad, but most of the time, it just happens. The search of human beings for blaming others, of assuming the universe or God or other people must behave a certain way for our happiness, is actually the source, as the Buddhists teach, of great suffering.
And so this month as an ethical theme I’m thinking about “blessings” – by which I mean those good things that happen to us without our earning them. Sure, if we study hard, we earn a college degree – and if we studied hard and followed rules, we like to think we earned our way into that college. Yet accidents of birth and luck along the way helped us, as well. If we only look at the part about what we “earned” we are then tempted to think that others who haven’t succeeded also “earned” their lack of success.
There is just so much in this life that is unearned good. The fact that we have life, the fact that life even exists, are accidents, results of many lucky coincidences that reinforced each other and brought us to consciousness.
And we can also do good whether we think someone “earned” our responsibility to do that, or not. And without the assumption that someone then owes us back for our having done that. We are kind and courageous in our ethical lives because it’s being ethical, not for the sole reason that we expect to be rewarded in return – though we often are, sometimes simply by that feeling of wholeness, of being a mensch, of expressing our innermost best self.
Noticing blessings and being a blessing – two ways to think about the ethical concept of “blessing.”
I leave you to ponder this poem by the Sufi poet Hafiz of Persia, and to wonder what it would be like if more of us were like the sun, more of the time:
The sun never says to the earth,
‘You owe me.’
Look what happens with
A love like that.
It lights the whole sky.Hafiz of Persia
You might also be interested in:
- The Blessings of This Life – May 2016 Platform topic
- Ethics Matters: Blessings, Paying It Forward – small group discussion in May, 2016
- Ethics Matters: Don’t Just Count Blessings – Taste Them! – another small group discussion in May, 2016