As Washington continues its financial debates, we are befuddled by our sophisticated “adult” methods of problem-solving. We say one thing while doing another. We do one thing while saying another. Of course, these paradoxes are driven by all manner of constraint – time, money, skill and even direct self-deception.
Why do we encourage folks in public prison to read the Bible and attend church but prohibit them from doing the same while attending public schools? Why do we forbid ourselves from actions that would atrophy and spark dependency with wild animals in public parks while we fail to do the same to protect millions of able-bodied Americans trapped in the death-spiral of a life on the public dole?
As a college student decades ago, I visited Mexico and first encountered urban poverty. Yet, I was admonished by the chaperones to avoid giving money – even the smallest amount – to the scores of children begging on the streets. To be compassionate (and make myself feel good) by tossing a few bucks into the basket would, I was told, create incentives, keeping the children out of the free Mexican education system and ensuring poverty for generations to come. If I indulged my instinct to ease the perceived suffering, then I was actually perpetrating a much greater harm. They instructed, give to institutions not to people! Were there cases where an individual child was in real need? Of course – human suffering is a part of being human. Yet, could I, in attempting to assuage the pain of one, actually lead to the pain of many?
In all the season’s greetings and all the spending, it remains important that we measure our generosity by outcomes as much as by intentions. But, can a generous intention ever be bad with the unintended consequences made not pertinent?