My first experience with the idea of doing good deeds came from the Boy Scouts, whose motto is: “Do a good deed daily.” The popular image was of a young scout helping an old lady across the street (apparently the idea was originally meant as a joke, mocking the new organization of the Boy Scouts). This was my first lesson in the dynamics of good deeds: don’t automatically assume someone wants your help, just because it’s your perceived duty.
Castaneda tells a story about a time when he helps a turtle cross the road. Don Juan reprimands him for doing so, because he has deprived the turtle the opportunity to accomplish what may be a central task (requiring the turtle to perform the task another day when circumstances may be less fortuitous). In addition, Castaneda has assumed, perhaps incorrectly, the turtle’s destination. If the story is metaphoric, there is a good point to ponder. In reality, I have helped turtles across the road, on the theory that my convergence with the crossing was good fortune for the turtle.
The difficulty in doing the right thing is demonstrated in the Radio Lab broadcast about Lucy the chimpanzee (http://www.radiolab.org/2010/feb/19/). Scientists tried to raise Lucy to be human. It didn’t work, and so their next move was to try to “free” her back to the wild. That didn’t work out either. This sad story is filled with ignorant but otherwise good intentions.
The specter of good deeds and the fear of unforeseen consequences may have contributed to the ironic phrase: “No good deed goes unpunished.” The following little joke provides an example:
A man shows up at the gates of heaven. Peters says, I’d like to let you in, but you have to tell me of a good deed that you performed.” The man says, “About 10 of us were being held hostage by a bank robber. The thief was threatening a young woman. I stood up, walked over to the miscreant, and firmly stated, Leave her alone or you’ll be sorry.” Peter opens the gates. “Yes, that was a good deed, what happened next?”
Lest ye think that I would leave you with only the sad story of Lucy the chimp, I’d like to direct your attention to the Radio Lab episode entitled: “Animal Minds” (http://www.radiolab.org/2010/jan/11/). In the first segment, there is a story of a whale rescue that is truly moving. (If you do decide to listen, I would suggest also catching the last segment, with an amazing “love story” between a wild leopard seal and a scientist.)
Frank Capra, best known for directing “feel good” movies such as the perennial Christmas classic film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), illustrates the difficulty of doing good deeds in a serious film: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). In the film, Chinese warlord General Yen falls in love with a young American missionary. Against his better judgment he takes her advice and spares one of his enemies. This leads to his downfall. All the missionaries “good works” backfire. Before he dies, he wants to know: “Why did you come here? Why did you become a missionary?” She replies, “To do good works.” He looks at her in astonishment. “To do good works requires wisdom.” (This film was ahead of its time in many ways, not the least of which was the suggestion of potential romance between an Asian man and Caucasian woman. This led to the film’s downfall.)
When considering the acts of giving back and good deeds it might be useful to explore the concept of impeccability vs. sin. The word impeccable means “unlikely to sin.” In Hebrew and classical Greek, the word sin means “to miss the mark (or target)”, implying an error, a lack of precision, or even an unfocused ignorance. Thus impeccable, which is the opposite of sin, means “likely to hit the target, precise.” Being on target is a skill that requires both awareness and ability. You have to become aware of the presence of the target, and then you have to have the ability to hit the target.
To use the archery metaphor, in order to hit the target one must first have a clear view of the target. To aim at the wrong target will never be impeccable. Next, one must have knowledge – skillful means – of the tools of impeccability (in this metaphor – a bow and arrow). One must aim properly (focused intent), pull back on the string was sufficient strength (empowerment), and release when all actions are in agreement (timing). Impeccability ensures that our acts have alignment and connect with the intended outcome.
Having set the standard does not imply the need for perfection. We can no more be perfectly impeccable than we can be free of sin. But we can do our best.
Of course, there is another way to ensure that our gifts reflect Medicine, and that is to act out of a genuine connection with our soul. The connection is found by passing through the gateless gate, the inner breath of your action. Thus, giving back becomes a genuinely selfless and spiritual gesture. The responsibility to our soul is great, and to give from our soul ensures a degree of impeccability.
Keep in mind, what matters to Soul may not be the same as what matters to the ego or to any specific culture. Something small and pure may be “essential soul,” when compared to demonstrative, grand, pious, or even status affirming acts.
Back to General Yen. The film ends with his death. I’m assuming he took an arduous journey and eventually arrived at the border of heaven, where he was greeted by Peter. General Yen looked about for the gates that he could not see. “How do you pass through a gateless gate?” He asked. “If you’ve made it this far, you’re already through,” replied Peter.