Monday, November 04, 2019

'Delight in Doing Good by Stealth'

Even this late in life I remain a late-bloomer, still learning what many have known all along. Some people – my middle son is a close-at-hand example – are blessed early with understanding. With it comes an un-cocky sense of confidence. Michael is Odysseus-like in his competence, prepared for inconvenient eventualities. He is cunning in the benign, non-Machiavellian sense and sometimes I envy him.

I’m reminded of a friend from forty years ago, now dead. He was a Navy veteran, never went to college and for most of his professional life worked as a drugstore manager. He was a mess when it came to women but otherwise had much to teach. Once, we were in a public restroom in which the waste basket was overflowing and the floor was strewn with paper towels. While I was still drying my hands, Mike was picking up the mess and stuffing it into the basket, which meant he had to wash his hands again. I asked why he was doing that, and he said, “Every day I try to do a good turn and not get found out.” Was he serious? Of course. Did he tell me to do the same? Never. Good teachers seldom have to give direct orders, especially if they have willing students. I thought of Mike again while reading the letter William Cowper wrote on this date, Nov. 4, in 1782 to his friend the Rev. William Unwin:

“Men really pious delight in doing good by stealth. But nothing less than an ostentatious display of bounty will satisfy mankind in general. I feel myself disposed to furnish you with an opportunity to shine in secret.”

This is the opposite of virtue-signaling, which has nothing to do with virtue and everything to do with signaling.

No comments: