“[I]t’s time you made the acquaintance of an institution we all must embrace at some point in life: the thankless task. That’s how you file away changing a baby’s diaper, paying your taxes, visiting a relative turned cranky from infirmities, throwing in extra toward the tip because everyone else left the table. You do these because they’re the right thing to do, even though babies don’t sit up and say thanks for the squeaky-clean butt.”
—–Syndicated advice columnist and natural-born ethics whiz Carolyn Hax, answering a young woman’s question regarding the proper response to someone who should have thanked her for a kindness, but did not.
The letter writer was a high school athlete who, like most high school students today, had never been introduced to the satirical wisdom of philosopher/humorist Ambrose Bierce in his indispensable “The Devil’s Dictionary.” The young woman had organized a senior night tribute to a graduating teammate, who then expressed no gratitude after the event.
“I am not sure whether or when I should broach the subject. Am I being needy and selfish, or do I have a legitimate case for feeling disowned?” she queried Hax.
As she is about 98% of the time, the columnist was spot on in her response. Doing good things and right things do not assume some kind of quid pro quo, cosmic or otherwise, in this world or a subsequent one. Learning to feel good about doing the right thing whether you are praised, rewarded, thanked, or derive any tangible benefits yourself is one of the hardest lesson on the way to ethical living, and one of the most important. No, you shouldn’t assume that you will be treated unfairly, as Bierce suggests. As he meant to warn you, however, you shouldn’t be surprised, either.
Do not expect karma, or justice, or thanks—don’t even hold out for credit. Just figure out the right thing to do–how you would want to be treated, how you wish everyone would act, the conduct that will make society better for everyone by solving problems or making them bearable—and do it. Those who don’t understand that it’s also right to reciprocate by exhibiting recognition and gratitude haven’t figured things out yet, and their ethics alarms are jammed.
Be glad yours are in good repair.