Why we bother to do the right thing or nice things
Friday morning my neighborhood got a fresh coat of snow so while a fresh pot of coffee was brewing I walked to the end of the street and took a picture of a tree filled with hearts.
Susan and her son have been decorating wooden hearts and hanging them on that tree for valentine’s day for fifteen years.
Some year she won’t - and that will be ok - but every year that she does, it touches me deeply.
There was no need for her to do it the first year and there’s been no expectation that she would do it every year first.
Her son went to school with Elena and he remembered his friend the year after she died by decorating hearts with his mom and delivering the largest valentine’s day card I’d ever seen.
They hung it in a garden that our neighbors had built for Jan and Elena - two people from the same block that died within months of each other. The garden included a bench, beautiful plants, and a tree.
Since then the city has planted other trees around the garden, but the hearts hang on the tree that our neighbors planted.
Why did our neighbors plant the garden? Why do Susan and her son continue to hang hearts from the tree?
Why do people make the effort to do nice things?
The Good Place
Michael Schur, creator of the television show “The Good Place” is on a podcast book tour to promote his new book “How to be Perfect.”
He told a story on the Dan Le Batard show about being late with a script for one of his tv shows. Someone in production asked him if he could come in on Sunday to help make decisions that needed to be made before they started shooting the show on Monday.
He spent Saturday with his family but had to say to his family that he couldn’t spend Sunday with them because he had to go in to work.
When he got to work on Sunday he saw dozens of people there working through their weekend - away from their families - cancelling plans they may have had. He paused to realize that they were all there because he had gotten his script in late and it made him see the impact he had on others differently.
He punctuated the story with a quote from the philosopher Bernard Williams who says that the key thing in ethics is that we are specially responsible for what we do rather than what other people do.
Schur goes on to say that this means, “our job is to act with our own sense of integrity and our own sense of right an wrong and you can’t control other people’s views on that.”
So what good does it do to boycott a sports team, choose public transport over driving your car, or any of the dozens of decisions we make each day that don’t seem to make a dent on the world around us?
Schur says that Russell would say, “It’s less important to think about what good it will do in the macro sense and more to do with how you feel about yourself and how you live your own life.”
Paper or plastic
It’s often less expensive and more convenient to not do the right thing.
It’s easier to just tap the one button to buy something on Amazon than to head to my local bookstore. And sometimes I do just that. But I feel better when I walk into my local bookstore or find an independent store online and buy from them.
Will my one purchase of Michael’s book make a difference to my local store? Will it keep Mac’s Backs or Loganberry Books in business? No. But if enough of us do it might.
I think it’s more than just feeling good about myself, I think there is a sense that if I do the right thing in my life it might contribute to the things I think are important in the macro.
It might set an example that other’s may follow.
Or they might just roll their eyes at me and say to each other, “you know how he is.”
If I choose paper over plastic at the grocery store, will that really make a difference? That one plastic bag I didn’t use - is that significant?
Kim taught me to take the plastic spout on the cardboard milk cartons off so that we could recycle that little bit of plastic.
Did it make a difference?
It helped define who she was. It was part of the complex mix that made up how she lived her life.
And so I did it and I still do it even though she’s gone and now it’s part of who I am.
We change others around us by how we feel about ourself and how we live our own lives.
This is the essay for my 100th newsletter.
I love that you read it.
I don’t write it to change the world, but it’s given me a better understanding of who I am.
Maybe it’s changed you a bit as well.
100 weeks of essays.
15 years of hearts.
And 16 years ago today, on her favorite president’s birthday, Elena died.
She was six.
She didn’t have time to change the world - but she changed my world.
Her life changed me.
Her death changed me.
So here’s what I’m thinking. Take the time every now and then to find whatever your version of a tree is and hang whatever your version of a heart is on it.
Even if the only life you change by doing this is your own, that’s enough.
I’m betting that you will also change the lives of those around you even if you can’t see the change.
Find a tree.
Hang a heart.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 100. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe