I have found it hard to do good. Oftentimes, I’m unsure of what the good would be, so cannot bring it about. Then at other times, I know what it is, but don’t want to do it especially. The best I can say is that, for the most part, I want to want what is right. Such a distant remove from good-doing is a bad state of affairs, so when I actually manage to have not only the conviction about what the good is, but also the will to do it, it’s best that nothing stand in my way.
Here’s the problem. I live in a big city, and it’s sometimes harder to do good here. Last Saturday, having realized that I’ve been carrying boxes of clothes around as I move about the country, and that my closet is packed with suits I haven’t worn in years, the knowledge of a “good” I could do settled into my waiting brain. I would once and for all part with things I wouldn’t wear even if they did come back in style, and would even throw in a couple of things to which I was still attached.
Now, as you can see, this is no great sacrifice. Cleaning out my closet is not exactly giving the less fortunate “my coat and my cloak also.” I’ve long since realized that food drives can turn into reasons to get rid of all your extra cans of baked beans, tomato paste, and hush puppy mix. I once heard an argument over stuff being put into a paper bag for a Thanksgiving drop-off. It included the following phrase: “Don’t give ’em that! I like that! Give ’em these here—the date’s expired anyhow.” Still makes me laugh in self-recognition.
With boxes crammed full of old suits, coats, sweaters, and shirts, I loaded my truck devoid of too much trouble. Then off I went, to a chorus of the heavenly choir. But when I arrived at the donation center, I met the demons that have long plagued me; for there was a line; a long, long column of cars that queued through the narrow lot and led to the green storage containers in back.
Immediately, I cursed the city. I remembered doing this same thing down home, when you could pull up right to the door and give your stuff to nice old men and get your tax deduction form and be out of there in five minutes. But not here; no, here the urban counterpart is squeezed into a tiny lot, on a frantic freeway. The cars snaked back onto the road, where the donators were honked at and vulgarized with obscene gestures. To top it all off, it was twenty-five degree weather, with a wind chill of fourteen.
Since the line wasn’t moving, I whipped out of it, and after a series of three point turns and furious looks from people who didn’t like my tactics, I found an illegal place to park next to a pizza outfit. Upon going inside to inquire of an easier way just to make a donation, I was met with two more aggravating things: first, the place was full of college kids, buying all kinds of stuff on the cheap, not the huddled masses I’d envisioned; second, I was told to get back in line.
Enough was enough. A more worthy charity that collects garments in yellow bins stationed about the city would benefit from my largesse. But when I got to the location, the bins were overflowing and clothes spilled out onto the pavement. Since I’d spent more than an hour in my task of mercy, I gave up and decided to return to the original place at 9:00 the next morning—the earliest they opened on a Sunday.
But when I got there the next freezing day, I was met with yellow police tape blocking my passage. Two clueless volunteers did not know what the tape meant or what the process was. Maddened again, I labored the boxes out of the truck and across the lot, under the tape, and into the donation containers as the useless helpers watched. I then asked a third man who’d arrived how I could get my receipt so I could take the tax deduction. He told me they didn’t open until 9:30. The sign clearly said 9:00; but I left anyhow, promising to come back after mass.
I was just then ready to say—all too ready to say: “this is what you get for trying to do good.” A close second on my lips: “No good deed goes unpunished.” And for a time, I wallowed in the joy of the injustice. How delightful certain inconveniences are; they both make for a good story, and allow for a good excuse the next time you don’t want to do something—that is, for when your will fails.
But at mass, while I was wallowing in my white martyrdom, I suddenly noticed there was some commotion in a pew up ahead. The priest had just offered the peace when an afflicted boy who’d been breathing with difficulty began to have a seizure. It was a calamity oddly quiet, almost like a pantomime.
The mass went on all around him—“Peace of God” people said, “Peace of God”—the priests up front carefully doling out pieces of God into patens, those pieces to be lain on our tongues—as this boy twisted and grimaced and writhed. Ushers flew to his place, and the boy was lain down, into the waiting lap of his mother.
There was not much more to be done; she was calm, accepting; a mature woman with an old woman’s face. She did the good she must always have the will to do. Another held the boy’s hand, as he labored in his private garden of dark agony. They stayed there, in that broken pieta, while we passed them from all sides, on the way to receive another body, broken for us. In the distance, sirens wailed.
The mass ended. I didn’t go back for the receipt.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.