Worse Than Nothing

It is fairly common to hear people characterize integrity as things one does when no one is looking, or when there will be no credit given for it or even any benefit derived. It is born out of a person’s character. Let’s first be clear that there almost always is a benefit. As I have written before, we benefit by doing things that make us feel good. Nevertheless, actions that approach some semblance of altruism are considered among the most purely ‘good.’ Of high character.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post called, When Character Battles Reputation, which explores the differences. It’s one thing for a person to ‘do the right thing’ when it doesn’t impact his reputation significantly. That’s an honorable thing to do, and speaks to integrity. But what about those times when doing a good thing shows up as bad? Like, a person does a thing specifically because there is a good reason for it. A hopeful outcome, or at least a necessary one. But rather than going unnoticed and anonymous, that action is noticed, and interpreted very differently.

That’s a hard pill to swallow because we ultimately do care about our reputations, and want people to have positive characterizations of us. How brutal must it be to have done a good thing, and yet everyone believes it was evil? To be cut by the sword of contempt, enduring the resulting consequences to one’s reputation in spite of the actions working behind the scenes to achieve some good. That represents an even higher level of integrity than an unknown action.


Who gets to judge? What if only the person doing the action knows the real good behind it? What if the perpetrator miscalculated? The good was an intention, but the action ultimately did lead to hurt? Or the outcome is less clearly quantifiable. In these cases it is subjective. The person doing the deed may not even know for sure how good it was, or have full visibility into the consequences.

FingerPointIs it easier to live with the scorn and disdain of others when you know you were right? Should you fall on your sword and let them have their pound of flesh? You can try to defend your actions, but if that defense is unbelievable, or the act perceived to be indefensible, do you not compound the vitriol? What if the very person you were trying to help believes instead you were trying to hurt, or at least willing to hurt, or being selfish? And what if you care about that person’s opinion? You put yourself in a prison to free someone else, and the world believes you deserve to be there, or even got off easy.

Man, these issues get complicated. And thus we need to be very careful about our assessments of people’s motives and underlying character. There can be more to it than meets the eye. As a person who has been on both sides of this one I recognize we have to apply judgement to protect ourselves, but I suggest doing it with the humility that we could be dead wrong on occasion. Always remember, you are not that person. You are not in that person’s head, and you don’t know everything. It may be necessary for you not to know everything. Sometimes the effectiveness of the act depends on it being interpreted differently.

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