Recent studies show that helping behaviors are on the decline in our society. Stanley Milgram, one of my favorite social psychologists, conducted a study in 2001, and repeated it in 2011, that showed a ten percent decline in our willingness to help others. Social theories, including the bystander effect (sort of an “I’ll help if you will, but I won’t if you won’t, too” sort of thing), also speak to the decline in prosocial behaviors of late.
Often, we ask, “What is my involvement in this situation going to cost me?” We need to know the cost vs. benefit ratio of our helping or investing in someone else, and then we can decide if the investment is worth the return. Many times, these decisions take time and thought, but more often, such decisions happen in the blink of an eye. We stoop to pick up something a stranger dropped on the sidewalk and return it to them. We offer directions to a lost traveler when we are asked. Those are the easy ones.
Luke 14:28 explains that Jesus told the disciples it would be very wise of them to count the cost of following Him. In the end, He knew that investment would cost them everything.
It is rare that our investment in others costs us everything, but what if the outcome is not what we had hoped or had been promised? Then we begin to think twice about venturing in again, right? Maybe the cost was monetary or tangible in nature. Maybe it was a loss of reliability in the person or extreme disappointment in the situational result. I think we can all tell tales of reaching out to help, only to have our hands bitten in the process. The more often that happens, the less likely we are to continue reaching out our wounded hand.
Both Oscar Wilde and my mother are attributed with having said, “No good deed goes unpunished”. I’m pretty sure Oscar said it first. Still, I always thought this was a very sardonic attitude about helping people. After all, the Bible says, “Do not grow weary in doing good…”. That doesn’t seem to correspond with the “No good deed” adage. But then there are the verses, many of them, that warn us against investment in those who insist on behaving foolishly. When scripture comes down on both sides of an issue, it is then that we seek the wisdom for the situation and apply scripture with discernment.
The danger we face in having the “No-good-deed” attitude is that past experiences of poor investment cloud our willingness to seek to help others in the future. We are called to be salt and light. Salt must be applied, and light must be shown. We need to shake the sand of past disappointments from our sandals and move toward the hope of future investment. It is a risky proposition, but the best investments with the largest returns usually are.