a christian perspective on the world today

Feeding the homeless or the ego?

Have you ever heard someone say, “No good deed goes unpunished”? I heard the expression for the first time today and it seemed like an oxymoron. After all, why would anyone punish a good deed? However, a colleague explained that this is just an old-fashioned way of saying that our good deeds often are unappreciated by others. At times they’re even criticised, or worse, met with downright hostility. I decided I liked the quote. It’s a surprisingly apt characterisation of society today—the era of the iPhone, Facebook and what the late American comedy writer Harris Wittels defined as the “humblebrag.”

Wittels coined the term to describe “a specific type of brag that masks the boasting part of a statement in a faux-humble guise. The false humility allows the offender to boast [about] their ‘achievements’ without any sense of shame and guilt.”

According to an article in The Independent, the worst humblebrag offenders tend to be celebrities, who have a lot to brag about but who, for the most part, “maintain enough self-awareness not to wantonly show off the luck that has befallen them.” But “ordinary” people are now causing offence too.

Case in point: A recent post on Facebook generated at least 73,000 reactions and more than 60,000 shares. It wasn’t a cat video, a political meme or even a celebrity selfie. It was a simple black-and-white image emblazoned with the text, “If you want to feed the homeless, then feed the homeless. But the moment you post it on social media, you’re also feeding your ego.” [pullquote]

At least some people seem to agree.

“Is posting your good deeds on social media really about altruism?” asked Alyssa Rachelle, in an article on website MadameNoire. We know that what we post on social media can influence people’s perception of us. So if we post our good deeds on the likes of Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat, are we really being unselfish or are we just humble-bragging and looking for brownie points?

It’s the latter for actress Lucy Gransbury: “Facebook is full of good-deed-gloating,” she complains in a written contribution to the website Mamamia. “Statuses in which people attempt to be subtle, but really are screaming ‘QUICK, EVERYONE, LOOK HOW GENEROUS I WAS TODAY!’ ”

I disagree.

Personally, I find it strange that we’re so quick to judge people’s motivation for posting good deedson social media but often turn a blind eye to posts about other things. We don’t accuse people of being self-centred when they change their Facebook status from “Single” to “In a relationship.” We don’t tell people they’re egotistical as we scroll through Snapchat selfies with flower crowns and puppy-dog ears. And we don’t question people’s motivations when they proudly share their graduation photos, job promotions or overseas holiday plans. Instead we cheer with them, congratulate them and wish we were there.

The truth is that we can’t (and shouldn’t) judge people’s motivations for posting what they do. We might draw conclusions from their tone or choice of words, but, ultimately, only the person posting can articulate the reason behind their post. Otherwise we’d have to question the purpose of everything we see posted on social media. And just how do you judge the purpose of a Snapchat selfie?

Even if people are highlighting their good deeds, isn’t it nice to have something positive to look at for a change? The movement #LoveWhatMatters has a following of more than seven million people on Facebook. According to their website, it all began with a simple premise: “There are millions of good people who want to celebrate the moments in life that matter. There are plenty of places to go if you want news about crime and violence, celebrity gossip or politicians attacking one another. But where do you go when you want to be inspired? Where do you go when you want to read about foster kids being adopted, military heroes returning to their families, a dad opening a box to learn he’s now a grandfather or a first wedding dance that doctors thought would never happen? These are the things that matter, and we celebrate them every day.”

LoveWhatMatters.com frequently highlights the good deeds people do in everyday life, whether it’s leaving a generous tip for a financially strapped waiter or helping someone carry their groceries. People commenting on the site say that reading about these acts of kindness restores their faith in humanity and gives them hope for the future.

In this case, posting good deeds on social media has nothing to do with ego and everything to do with spreading moments of light in a darkening world. The humblebrag has the potential to raise awareness of good deeds as well as inspiring others to contribute too.

According to care2.com, GoodyGood is a mobile app that was specifically built for users to share their good deeds in the hope they could inspire others to do good deeds too. The “genius” behind the app was eight-year-old Nyla, who believes that “a little seed grows into a big tree” and that “little random acts of kindness can change the world.”

Nyla approached her parents with the concept of creating an app where people could record good deeds and words of kindness and hopefully inspire us. Her mum worked for a software company, her dad was a marketing strategy consultant and they were glad to help her create the app.

Although the app is no longer available, it proved very popular while it was. Some people used it to share simple acts of kindness such as paying for the order of the car behind them at the drive-through or offering their seat to someone on the train. Others shared good deeds they’d helped family and friends with, and still others shared what they’d done for the community, such as donating clothes to secondhand stores or giving time to a school reading project. It was a great community for people wanting to help make the world a better place and inspire others.

As a child, I loved reading all kinds of books (and still have the collection to prove it). But I’ve always had a special fondness for real-life biographies—inspiring true stories about people who made a positive difference in either their home communities or overseas.

One of my childhood heroes was Elizabeth Fry, an English philanthropist and social reformer who was born in 1780. At the prompting of a family friend, Fry first visited the Newgate Prison in London in 1813 and was horrified by the living conditions of the female prisoners and their children. She came back the next day with food and clothes for the women and eventually funded a prison school for the children.

Fry also taught the female prisoners how to sew, read and earn money for themselves. And she campaigned heavily for the abolition of the slave trade, spoke frankly about the importance of improving prison conditions and established various night shelters for the homeless in London.

In 1818, Fry gave evidence to a House of Commons committee about the horrific condition of British prisons, becoming the first woman to present these facts to Parliament. But she wasn’t content to simply leave the issues for the men of the Parliament to sort out. She went on tours of Europe to highlight the work she was doing and promoted the importance of welfare change and humanitarianism. Her visit inspired the king of Prussia to personally visit Newgate Prison and see the changes that her efforts had inspired for himself.

Queen Victoria was also impressed by Fry’s humanitarian work and contributed financially to her causes.

When Fry died of a stroke in 1845, the seamen of the Ramsgate Coast Guard chose to fly their flag at half-mast as a sign of respect for her—a practice that until then was officially reserved for the death of a ruling monarch.

Fry had no hesitation about bringing publicity to her charitable causes and good deeds because they truly inspired others and brought about change. She knew that this was the way to raise awareness of the causes and bring on board people with influence and decision-making power.

But let’s be clear: doing good deeds doesn’t make you a “good” person. The prophet Isaiah recognised this, telling us that even our best attempts to earn brownie points with God are worthless in comparison to His perfection: “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).

Fortunately, God can see what lies deep within our hearts and read our motivations. In the end, it’s not what we do (or don’t do), but what we intend that matters. And maybe that’s what the social media critics want us to remember.

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