The Good Samaritans

Americans are generous people. We give to our causes, our churches and our charities. We’re kind to strangers and helpful to our friends. When disaster strikes, we are first in line to help. Helping our neighbor is deeply ingrained in our culture.

In the age of information it’s usually easy to find a survey or a study that supports something we already know, or think we know. About 10 years ago the World Giving Index started tracking charitable contributions by country. For the last 10 years the US has ranked as the most generous nation in the world, according to the Index.

Now the Index doesn’t take into account foreign aid. It only tracks the likelihood that a nation’s citizens will perform acts of generosity. As we all know, foreign aid, which does have its benefits and is funded by our tax dollars, is sometimes wielded to accomplish goals that have little or nothing to do with helping the citizens of the recipient nation. Still, the US ranks number one in foreign aid by amount, and number two per capita.

Though corporate media through what they present as pop culture would have us divest ourselves as quickly as possible from our Judeo-Christian heritage, this does not change the facts of our history one iota, and one of the stories that has informed our generosity for generations is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

We all know the story, and if we have forgotten it, even the most secular minded among us is familiar with the phrase. The “Good Samaritan” was originally a story to remind us not only to help our neighbor, but to remember who our neighbor is. It encourages us to show compassion to the people we encounter in life, regardless of their race or religion.

We could write many pages just on the preceding paragraph, but this week we’ll limit the discussion to the more generic use of “Samaritan” and the concept of generosity in general.

It’s been my observation that the good Samaritan is not always the smart Samaritan. While we would never discourage a generous impulse or the desire to help a neighbor, in a complex world it behooves us to focus our generosity with a consideration of its consequences.

Here’s a small example. You’re sitting in traffic within sight of the traffic light. A few cars ahead of you, a driver decides to let someone from a side street go ahead of them, and then someone else. They get a brief ego stroke from their public display of neighborliness. You miss the light and are late for work.

We’ve all been that “generous” person, but we don’t always consider traffic flow and the possibility that our “generous” act can further impede it. It isn’t really generosity. We haven’t given anything. We’ve simply stolen time from the people behind us and reallocated it to someone else.

A more serious example happens when the good Samaritan waves someone in from a side road for a left turn. The driver can’t see the oncoming traffic and causes an accident, or they become stuck perpendicular to the flow of traffic, blocking both lanes and further impeding the flow.

During the recent snow storm I saw another example of a Samaritan gone wrong. For as long as I can remember, during every snow storm we’ve had a small group of good fellows who enjoy cranking up their 4 wheel drives and riding the roads. Sometimes they will throw a chain and a shovel in the back of the truck and help out stranded motorists they might come across.

I’ve been one of those people, and it was probably never a good idea, even “back in the day” when there weren’t nearly as many people on the roads, when there were, on average, younger drivers on the road, and when there weren’t as many people in 2wd vehicles thinking they can get up an icy hill in a passenger car. The roads are more hazardous now they they were back then.

In any event, on a steep hill in a blind curve, a woman in a passenger car slid into a ditch. An unfortunate occurrence, but she was unhurt and relatively safe out of the road. A good Samaritan came along and pulled her out of the ditch and straight across the road, perpendicular to the flow of traffic and blocking one and a half lanes. Unable to move the car any further on the ice, he left her sitting there, on a steep hill, in a blind curve, while they waited for the professionals to arrive. A generous and helpful act, and a stupid one.

Many of us prefer to focus our generosity by giving to charities. This is an outstanding way to help our neighbors, but it can be further refined by a bit of research. All charities are not created equal. Some are not actually nonprofit companies. Some pay their CEO’s nearly as much as the benefits that finally reach the intended recipients.

Some people believe that charity begins at home, and we focus our generosity on family and friends. This is laudable, but it also carries a burden of responsibility. Every parent knows the narrow pathway between giving their kids a leg up and creating dependency. Everyone who has a family member addicted to alcohol or drugs knows the fine line between helping and enabling. Again, we give, but we consider the consequences.

We are quick to criticize the government for “throwing money” at a problem, but when our generosity is not focused by wisdom, we can do exactly the same. When our generous acts are not focused, we can create more problems than we attempt to solve.

Still, we encourage generosity because that’s who we are, and because it’s more blessed to give than to receive. There is, however, a quick self test we can conduct to make sure that our generous impulse is properly focused: If we expect to be thanked for our act, or complimented or gratified in any way, that is a sure sign that we need to slow down and consider the consequences of what we are about to do.

Finally, we can think of generosity as a seed. If we plant it in barren ground, it will not grow. If we water it too much, it will develop shallow roots and fall over in a storm.

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