What defines a good act? According to Parker Palmer, good acts “are those that allow people the freedom to choose their own destinies.” (Active Life, p. 47)

If we use this definition, how many of our acts are truly good?  When we give money on the street, are we giving money to someone so he can choose his destiny, albeit to use our gift to buy the drugs that kill him? How free is the person to choose his own destiny if enslaved by addiction?

Or what if we give a mother rent for a month rather than working with her to be able to have a job that pays the basic living expenses for her family? Do we create a dependency when we pat ourselves on our back and congratulate ourselves about how helpful we have been?  Might our good act involve a whole lot more in changing the world than simply giving money to ease her immediate needs AND our guilt?

I have to admit that this standard is a difficult one for me to apply. How many of my good acts actually end up making me feel better about myself rather than providing a life changing opportunity for a person? How can I decide?

Palmer says that “goodness” that is driven by my needs to act is not good at all. He writes, “Such goodness is often imposed on people who have no desire for it, people who become the objects of [my] self-serving charity. For those recipients the experience is not one of benevolence but of violence, the violence that is done whenever someone else decides what you need without consulting you.”

This reminds me of a trip I took to Boston and Providence, RI, to look at housing. A group in Providence had designed and raised money to build a community center in a low-income neighborhood. When they unfolded their great—and to their minds generous—plan, the neighbors just stared. Some even glared. The benefactors certainly did not get the positive affirmation they were expecting.

They finally asked the residents what was going on. The residents said, “We don’t want a community center right now. The problem here is rats.”  The group changed direction and moved to help the residents eliminate the rat problem.  They allowed the residents to, as Palmer says, “choose their own destinies.”

Good acts… promoting others and not myself. What a novel idea???

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