Do what is right and good, anyway, in spite of risks

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 28, 2009 

Doing the right thing for no other reason than it is the right thing has been a topic that continues to generate amazing responses from our coffee companions (see my Jan. 7, 2009 column).

Victoria Lenon oversees contract work in the Ft. McMurray area of northern Alberta. Responding to the idea of people doing the right thing on behalf of others in a tight spot, she wrote me about something that happened to her on her way to work on a wintry Jan. 4:

“I was driving up the long hill a half hour out of Lac La Biche when I spun out and hung the bumper of my Toyota truck on the guard rail. I wasn't going fast enough to be hurt, but was shaken up and in ‘fight and flight,’ so couldn't catch my breath. I was standing outside my truck and bent over. 

“A wonderful gentleman stopped right away and ushered me into his truck with his mother-in-law. He had picked her up and was taking her to his home to baby-sit, as his wife was going to Edmonton for cancer treatment.

“As I sat there shaken and grateful, this angel flagged down a truck with a winch. Its driver proceeded to lift my truck off the guard rail. This gentleman was a young man working for an energy company outside Nisku and had no hesitation helping.

“Everything was completed within a half hour and I was on my way.

“I had just been listening to Rex Murphy on CBC radio talking about civility – whether there was more or less these days. He asked listeners for their best and worst stories. I was in the middle of listening to a story on the kindness of strangers when this event happened.”

Travelling from Alberta cold to California warmth, fellow columnist and cross-cultural communicator Jack Popjes picked up on the motivation for doing the right thing, especially when attempting to do the right thing across cultural boundaries in assisting people who have been historically oppressed and marginalized. In such situations, Jack notes, it is easy to fall into the trap of being guilt-driven, patronizing or arrogant. What is really needed is “love guided by wisdom.”

“The ‘right thing to do’ is determined by knowledge and wisdom, not just what our feelings are, or what our culture expects. This includes cross-cultural and sociological knowledge,” he says.

“I mention wisdom, in particular. That is the main struggle. It is not just ‘meeting felt needs,’ since some needs that are felt by a community are foolish by any cultural standard. Also, guilt is a poor motivator, since almost any ‘good action’ will alleviate the guilty feeling. But love guided by wisdom is a great motivator. It often takes a lot of study and thought to make the decisions leading to ‘the right thing to do.’”

Love guided by wisdom, yes. But such love must also be fortified with selfless courage.

This is the point of a book strongly recommended by Town of Cochrane Councillor Joann Churchill: Do It Anyway, by Kent M. Keith (Inner Ocean, 2003).

In 1968, when Dr. Keith was only 19 and a student at Harvard University, he prepared a list of 10 principles for finding meaning and happiness in life. Known now as “Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments,” the list has found its way around the world, and at one point even appeared on a wall at Mother Teresa’s children’s home in Calcutta (which led some to believe the esteemed woman herself was the author).

You can find personal meaning and deep happiness “by facing the worst in the world with the best in yourself,” Keith writes.

For Dr. Keith, a highly-regarded educator, advisor and community servant, “the Paradoxical Commandments are about loving people, helping people, and doing what is right and good and true” in spite of the risks involved. I’ll close with his list:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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