Not so long ago, I was regaling Sally with a story from my day. Somewhere during this discourse, I described a word or action in the context of “my heart for it,” meaning that whatever I had said or did was born from good intentions. She smiled and gently reminded me that my good intentions didn’t necessarily make my word or action the right, just, or best word or action. She was right. Even thought my “heart” was in the right place, it was no guarantee of wisdom in the path chosen.
We are a people of “heart.” We have hearts for all sorts of causes and our collective “heart” has made us one of the most generous nations in the world. Justice is a rallying cry for many of our efforts to right the wrongs of our society and our world. Prosperity has made us a nation of good intentions and we have the resources to right so many wrongs across this broken globe we call Earth. Our collective “heart” is a good thing. The desire to help, improve, or even save, is born of a noble intent to recognize problems and solve them.
However, our good intentions don’t guarantee the effectiveness of our generosity, and can often have the opposite effect. Alas, good intentions do not necessarily equate to wise decisions.
Playing the Hero
Growing up, I loved knights, and bravery, and honor. At least as I understood them. As a boy, I dreamt of saving the damsel or the kingdom. I imagined bold quests, and honorable battles in which good was always obvious, and always prevailed. I dreamt of being the hero. As I grew older, I found many opportunities to help, to save, and to rescue. Being the oldest of eight children afforded me the chance to be the hero in many ways, and my “heart” for heroism grew and grew.
Part of being a hero is taking responsibility, owning the problem. A side effect of being the hero and taking responsibility for the problem, is that ownership gets taken away from someone else. In addition to saving others from the dragons of the world, the hero begins trying to save people from their own mistakes; many of those situations involve saving someone from struggle, difficulty, or the consequences of their own decisions, and taking away an opportunity to learn from the process.
Looking back, I recognize that I have been rescued from my own bad decisions on more than one occasion, however, I was more often given the opportunity to struggle through or face the consequences of my own mistakes.
We are called to help. We are hardwired to support one another with our gifts, time, or accompaniment. The risk comes from the inclination to ‘save’, to play the hero, and rob another of the chance to struggle, learn, grow, and become stronger. Our heroic efforts frequently tip into backstopping someone else; a circumstance, when repeated frequently, reduces their ability to cope, respond, or rise to the occasion. Our heroically good intentions actually take away someone else’s opportunity to fight through a difficulty and become their own hero.
Heroism and Parenthood
“Wait a minute!”, you might say, “I’m not in heroic situations, saving people from themselves, or the dragons of their lives.” The most common place we do this is in the most impactful role of our lives: as a parent.
You’ve heard of “helicopter” parents, right? The term was created to describe those parents who swoop-in and defend, prop, or save their children from any and all difficulties they encounter. It is such a slippery slope. How do we walk that fine edge between letting our child learn a lesson and finding themselves in a catastrophic situation? It’s easy when they’re young and depend completely upon our protection, but things get fuzzy as they grow and make increasingly foolish decisions, or find themselves in more “adult” situations.
Where is that edge between helping out and backstopping? The answer can be difficult, as are the implications of too much, or too little, intervention. We must protect our children, but how do we do that while making sure they become strong enough to protect themselves, and wise enough to make good decisions? Alas, there is no one answer, nor obvious pathway.
You have likely heard the “Lesson of the Butterfly.” The caterpillar must struggle to escape from the cocoon, because it is in that struggle she becomes strong enough to become a butterfly able to survive. If one helps the young butterfly out of the cocoon, it will soon die as it is not strong enough to fly. This lesson plays out time and again in human life and nature, that which does not kill us truly makes as stronger as we find ways to move past and survive the challenges.
The Challenge of Prosperity
In addition to our “heart” for making right the wrongs of the world, we also have resources on a level the world has never known. Ours is a very wealthy nation. Our government is able to deploy massive resources in many directions at breathtaking scale. Along with this is individual prosperity that is equally staggering. In 2020, Americans donated $471 billion to charities. The U.S. Government gave $51 billion of economic and military aid to other nations in 2020, and spends $1 trillion a year on welfare programs within the U.S. From this post’s perspective, that is putting your money where your “heart” is.
Of course, it is unlikely that anyone reading this believes all of that money is well-spent, either from an effectiveness perspective, or as a reflection of “right” priorities. Even taking political preferences aside, we all intuit the impossibility of any person or nation’s ability to deploy so much money efficiently or effectively. Such staggering amounts will, by default absorb massive waste. Besides the inefficiencies, it is also very likely that the money given has many negative effects. How many butterflies are dying on the branch, unable to fly, after so much effort to reduce their struggle?
This is the great challenge of prosperity and the massive responsibility of tremendous wealth. Even with a heart for goodness, how do we bring such wealth to bear most effectively? Not only should we be seeking to right the wrongs, but we should be equally worried about the potential harm that can come from deploying so many resources poorly. The challenge of prosperity is to do good with the wealth we have while working hard to “do no harm.”
The Hero in All of Us
Every person reading this post has gifts and opportunities beyond most of the rest of the world. At some level, each of you is playing the hero to some group of people in your life. Even at the smallest level as parent, grandparent, or friend to a single human being, you are significant in that regard and you have gifts to bring to those who need you. In those relationships, you have the chance to help, be present, or backstop when trouble appears on the horizon.
When we’re in survival mode, the decisions are easy in the sense that options are narrowed and we do what we need to do to survive. We may have limited options to play the hero, and find ourselves showing up in a limited fashion as we are able. However, when we come to a point when we have more resources, time, money, or otherwise – more options, and we can do more for those around us, we may find ourselves wanting to swoop-in and play the hero in ways beyond survival.
How do we balance our “heart” for heroism with the struggle that may need to be experienced? Where do we draw the line on what we “can” do and what is truly needed? How do we make sure our desire to help does not tip into unintended harm?
That Quest for Wisdom
The Catholic Church teaches that we don’t approach spiritual adulthood until around 40. Some of us take longer. I have told my girls for a long time to not expect the men in their lives to really start growing up until about 30. I know, it’s not entirely fair, but there are simply some things that can only be improved with time and experience. Ours is a quest for wisdom, the path to growth and the ability to discern the best course of action in the situations that we face.
It is a lifelong quest. I don’t see a right, or obvious, answer. The struggles that help us grow past survival are followed by the struggles that help us figure out how to thrive, and eventually be helpful to others along the way. The heroes among us must find a way to bring their superpowers to bear in a way that helps others win their own battles, while not causing more harm than good. Whether a nation or an individual, it is an awesome responsibility.
This was my father’s favorite quote in teaching us how to live our lives. It was inspiring to read your explanation. Thanks so much.
Thank you Becky. Your father was clearly a wise man and certainly succeeded with you. As one who gives much of herself to those in need, you are in a unique position to understand the opportunities and pitfalls of good intentions.