You Rarely Know What Good You Do

I’m going to tell the story of when one friend helped out another despite there being several years and over 300 miles between action and effect. (I’m going to use pseudonyms because why trespass on someone’s privacy needlessly? They’ll recognize this story, but they already know it.)

I’ll call my friends Lucybelle and Beatrice. Lucybelle and Beatrice met each other swing dancing. Lucybelle had been swing dancing for a number of years when Beatrice started, and she was quite good at it and widely admired. She was also an enthusiastic, generous person who loved to help newcomers to the lindy hop scene. She was also a very positive person: she tended to appreciate the awkward, self-conscious dancing of people in their first year or two of lindy hop more than the beginners did themselves. Now, you might think that this was a beginner’s dream, but in fact the combination often seemed too good to be true. How could the best dancer in the scene possibly enjoy watching you dance when your dancing feels nothing like what you feel like when you watch her dance? The same also applied to male dancers; how could the best female dancer in the room actually enjoy dancing with a beginner like me when she can have her pick of skilled partners?

These doubts were natural on the part of beginners of both sexes, but Lucybelle would eventually win everyone over with persistence. Over time, her actions were consistent with her professions and not really with any other explanation, so one came to believe that she was sincere. Which she was. All things in this world eventually come to an end, however, and after a few years both Lucybelle and Beatrice moved away to different places and didn’t really keep in touch.

Several years after that, Beatrice was progressing in a team sport, building up her strength and skill. As it happened, there was a highly skilled player on the team, who had played for many years before Beatrice, and who was, like Lucybelle, a very enthusiastic person who was very encouraging of people less skilled than her. I’ll call her Celerity. But again, the same problem emerged: Celerity was so good, and she was so positive, surely she couldn’t think anyone who wasn’t on her level any good and surely she didn’t mean any of her compliments? Surely she was just a nice person who wanted to make other people feel good?

As Beatrice was telling me about this one day, I reminded her of Lucybelle. She thought the same things about Lucybelle, at first, didn’t she? And she turned out to be wrong because Lucybelle wasn’t trying to blow sunshine up anybody’s orifices, she simply took the trouble to say the good things she thought where most people don’t give themselves that trouble. We all notice when others do things well, but most of the time it would be awkward or unusual to say anything, and in any event expressing an opinion exposes one to the risk of being thought foolish for that opinion. When something’s really bad it’s easy to complain about it, but if things are going well, it’s easy to tell ourselves that people already know that they’re doing a good job so why should we expose ourselves to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by drawing attention to ourselves with speech. Lucybelle had the courage to open her mouth when she had good things to say, I pointed out to Beatrice, and if you think about it, doesn’t that sound true of Celerity, too?

Beatrice thought about it and admitted that I was right, and finally accepted the compliments from Celerity. Lucybelle had ended up helping Beatrice to be happy, though she hadn’t seen her in years and had no way of knowing that any such thing would ever happen.

In general, I think most people recognize that we plant seeds which may one day sprout. But equally important—perhaps more important—is that we sometimes till the soil so that someone else can plant a seed that would never have taken in hard ground. Planting a seed is the work of a moment, but tilling is a long effort. We’d all like to see the fruits of our labor, but I think it’s important to remember that most of us are not harvesters. We usually don’t see the fruits of our labors, but that’s only because we’ve moved on to tilling a different field by the time the crops have grown.

One thought on “You Rarely Know What Good You Do

  1. Pingback: You Don’t Know All the Good You Do (Podcast) – Chris Lansdown

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s