Peter LLC continues his guest stint at BCC. See his earlier post here.
By a show of hands, how many of you have started each day intending to do good, only to realize upon retiring to bed that the world was probably worse off for your efforts?
I know I have; certainly as a missionary and in just about every calling since then my attempts to serve others have backfired as often as not. Let me share a couple of examples.
My last transfer on the mission was to an Elder whose trainer had been a dynamic go-getter, always happy to take the lead and get things done. His trainee appeared to be a study in contrasts–quiet, reserved and content to follow. When I arrived, I felt that what this introverted missionary needed was a good stiff dose of motivation–after all, he had most of his mission still before him and needed to work on his German and break out of his shell to be able to talk to people.
I immediately began sharing responsibility by giving him an map and suggesting he lead the way to the next appointment appointment, taking him by the elbow and suggesting he make that dinner appointment after sacrament meeting, making deals where I would talk to ten passersby for every one he approached at the street display and so on. And it turned out he resented me for my efforts. At the time it was clear we were never going to hang out in real life, but it wasn’t until several years after the mission that I discovered I had been deemed his worst companion* on the website devoted to his mission experience.
Perhaps another example of good intentions yielding negative outcomes concerns the plan for welfare assistance the ward leadership worked out for a family of new members whose father/husband, Steve (names have been changed), was unemployed and unable to afford even the fare to come to church.
Keenly aware that the devil finds work for idle hands, the ward leadership hatched a plan that would solve Steve’s transportation problems, facilitate his job search, channel his enthusiasm for the gospel into a meaningful calling and provide him with something meaningful to do until more permanent employment could be found. First, Steve would be called as a ward missionary. Second, he would be given an assignment to assist with the bi-weekly cleaning of the church building. For his labors, the ward would provide him with a public transportation pass, allowing him go about the Lord’s work without breaking the 12th Article of Faith and hopefully encouraging him to actively seek work without having to worry about or hide behind the fear of getting caught. And to top it off, assurances were made that, if needed, assistance for groceries and utilities could be made available.
Well, you know what the poet Burns said about the best laid schemes of mice and men: They
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Indeed, after the plan was announced the family’s church attendace became spotty. With no visits by the home teachers (one had moved out of the ward, the other was inactive himself and neither had been replaced) or anyone else, no one really knew why. After some follow up visits were finally conducted, the leadership discovered that Steve’s new-found mobility prompted him to make himself scarce until late at night. In addition, since Steve was releuctant to approach the bishop to let him know of any needs for groceries, no further assistance was forthcoming. Susie was frustrated by her husband’s absences, his reluctance to talk to the bishop and generally annoyed that the plan otherwise hadn’t amounted to much. And Steve was still morose because as it turned out the plan didn’t really address the root of his problems in the first place–his visa status. No amount of mobility or food was going to get around the legal barriers of the absent residence and work permits preventing employment, and the uncertainty of being able to secure the permits at any price took its toll on the family.
It’s not clear to me that either my companion would have better off it I had let him be or if the family would have been happier if the ward had totally ignored them, but I suspect both suffered to some extent as the targets of imperfectly executed do-gooding. Obviously one alternative would just be to do it right the first time, but it seems that when the rubber hits the road, negative outcomes–whether unforeseen, unintended or both–come all too easily despite the best intentions, like when an ambulance hits a couple of pedestrians on the way to an accident scene, injuring them and delaying care for the original patient.
And so I wonder–how is it that well-meaning people, motivated to some degree by gospel values to serve God and each other, make such a dog’s breakfast out of service sometimes?
While not concerned with negative outcomes per se, the sociologist Robert Merton explored some possibilities of “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in his 1936 paper where he discussed factors limiting the correct anticipation of the consequences of action:
- Lack of adequate knowledge: “The exigencies of practical life frequently compel us to act with some confidence even though it is manifest that the information on which we base our action is not complete. We usually act … not on the basis of scientific knowledge, but opinion and estimate.” (I will expand on this idea in a future post)
- Error: “A common fallacy is frequently involved in the too-ready assumption that actions which have in the past led to the desired outcome will continue to do so…. Error may also be involved in instances where the actor attends to only one or some of the pertinent aspects of the situation which influence the outcome of the action.”
- The “imperious immediacy of interest”: “The actor’s paramount concern with the foreseen immediate consequences excludes the consideration of further or other consequences of the same act.”
- Basic values: “There is no consideration of further consequences because of the felt necessity of certain action enjoined by certain fundamental values.”
It is this last point that I find particularly interesting from the standpoint of a member whose interactions with others are more or less conciously steered by the application of values in daily life. Merton continues: “Here is the essential paradox of social action – the “realization” of values may lead to their renunciation. We may paraphrase Goethe and speak of “Die Kraft, die stets das Gute will, und stets das Böse schafft.”**
Mephistopheles, Faust’s devil, actually claimed to be a “part of that power which still produceth good, whilst ever scheming ill,” but Merton’s play on this famous line is a pithy reminder that even the noblest of intentions can result in unanticipated disaster. And why? “When a system of basic values enjoins certain specific actions, adherents are not concerned with the objective consequences of these actions but only with the subjective satisfaction of duty well performed.”
So what do you think–are there any implications here for would-be servants of the Lord? Is the command to magnify our callings–to take a holistic view of one’s duties–a response to this phenomena? Could this also be a factor in the Book of Mormon’s pride cycle, where thrift and industry lead to wealth and sloth? How does Zion fare when its builders, stung by negative outcomes in the past, play it conservative with their service? How about when they seek to expand it by leaps and bounds in a push of zeal? Is there a third way when it comes to unanticipated consequences of action?
*Full disclosure: He wasn’t the only one; I received this title twice during my tenure as a missionary. Some readers will probably not be surprised.
**See title for translation