Is it possible to do good deeds if they are accompanied by bad thoughts? This is an issue that arose in therapy with a client today. It is a tricky line to tread between being a therapist, a philosopher and a theologian, but I relish these kind of discussions.
I think that a good deed is defined by the outcome, regardless of the thinking that might precede or accompany it. If I help someone across the road and we safely make it to the other side, then it is a success – assuming the person wanted to be helped across the road. I might have been thinking that this makes me look good, a caring citizen, a chance to shine in my urban world. I could be thinking about a thousand different things. Other people will come to their own conclusions about my motives, but these would be only suppositions shaped by their own thinking biases. Whatever their thoughts, the act remains as an obeservable phenomenon. How can we be sure of the motivations that underlie other people’s actions when we are often confused about our own motivations for the way we behave?
There is strong evidence to support the idea that by doing good deeds for others we contribute to our own well-being. There are so many people trapped within their own webs of anger and bitterness that thoughts of doing something nice for someone else are completely alien, backed up with statements such as “no-one looks out for me, so why should I care?” I am clearly an idealist, and believe that the simplest act of kindness creates ripples that can potentially reach many people. A friendly smile to someone looking a bit lost or glum leads them to feel a bit better and perhaps more motivated to help someone else.
Part of being human is accepting that we all have a darker side, we have bad thoughts at times, we are motivated by greed and selfishness on occasions, and we are prone to jealousy and envy. These traits do not detract from the acts of kindness we might also engage in from time to time.