Two sales representatives, Lynn and Jane, go out to lunch. Jane remarks that the young server’s scowl is frightening and customer service is poor. Lynn suggests that maybe he’s exhausted from working several jobs, afflicted by back pain or grieving the death of a pet. Jane responds, “Possibly, but he still should have noticed I dropped my napkin.” When Lynn leaves a large tip, Jane objects, “He deserves what I’m leaving: zero! I don’t get a bonus when I don’t sell.” Lynn merely shrugs. She’s pleased she can offer the glum young man a little financial, and moral, support.
At a team meeting later that afternoon, Jane hands Lynn two $20 bills and says, “Your tip was unnecessary, so I ran back to the table and rescued it.”
Jane, no doubt, somehow justifies robbing the world of a generally positive act. She might believe she taught the server a lesson or gave Lynn the option of spending her money more effectively. But these arguments are specious and unconvincing. Most of us are appalled that Jane squashed Lynn’s act of mercy, even if she disagreed with it, and that she foiled the server’s good fortune, even if it was unearned. We rightly despise her calloused obstructionism.
Yet, many of us Americans are acting as bizarrely as Jane. We oppose student-loan forgiveness for young Americans because no one forgave ours. We sue employers for extending opportunities to our less fortunate coworkers because we don’t directly benefit. We bemoan that we can’t eat our favorite fast food on Sundays because the company gives employees this day off. We pass laws to stop companies from minimizing the environmental damage of their operations because we opine it’s unnecessary. Simply put, we seem to judge all good deeds we wouldn’t choose as unworthy and all acts of contribution not directed at us as unjust. If our predecessors had applied these filters to their actions, you and I wouldn’t have unemployment insurance, free K-12 education or public parks. Societal progress would have stalled. We would be trapped living in the same barbaric conditions of centuries past.
Most of us think we would never act like Jane yet many of us do, albeit inadvertently. By blocking the light others are trying to shine on the world, we cast an ugly shadow on ourselves. Next time we’re tempted to oppose a benefit meant for others, I suggest we take a moment to reflect on this question: Do I want to be the type of person who robs the world of a generally positive act?