Doing good was a little hard for Sarah Magnoss. She had been raised with three brothers, and competition had been drummed into her — fastest, strongest, smartest, first. She’d even had to eat fast because the boys ate faster, and if she blinked the food was gone. But she was middle-aged now, determined to decide what she herself wanted instead of grabbing for something because someone else wanted it.
She had seen an item on TV about the Altruism Project. Was it possible to change the human tendency to err? Could people learn to do better? The news item was half tongue-in-cheek, but Sarah suspected that was because the reporter was a little embarrassed to be interested. How strange. Embarrassed by the idea of deliberately doing good?
Unfortunately, she had always been sharp-tongued, mainly because she couldn’t repress a mordant wit. She had said things she’d regretted. She had wounded people. Once, she had even exulted in it, which was a sobering thing to finally admit to herself.
“Choosing good requires practice in doing good,” the Altruism Project said, and although Sarah thought it was really the other way around, she felt that any direction would be helpful. She
could at least sample what doing good was all about.
It was a one-week course. The mornings were spent in discussions that wandered through legal, spiritual, cultural, even hormonal causes and effects of altruism. It was nice that they weren’t a cult, though their optimism did dictate a kind of narrow self-congratulation. She was determined to overlook that.
At noon they went to Bryant Park, which was the perfect location for their good works — a lot of office workers, some students, people who were going to the library, tourists looking at their guidebooks, a great mix of all kinds of people. Even parents with children.
It was a lovely afternoon, warm sunshine in early autumn, the park trees still green, the light coming down through the leaves, the small tables with their chairs filled with tourists and passers-by. The park managed to slow down the New York pace, as if there were a tide rushing around the island that was Bryant Park.
The Altruism group clustered together at the east end of the park, near the wide stairs that led up to a kind of patio and above that a restaurant.
Sarah saw Sandy, one of the men in the group, confront a young couple with a stroller approaching the steps. “Can I help you up the stairs?” he asked. They shook their heads. “You don’t need help?” he asked. His voice was a little too loud, a little too jocular. “Everyone needs help. The first step to success in life is accepting help. The second step is giving help. I’m trying the second step.”
“No, we can manage, thanks,” the child’s father said.
“Though he does need a diaper change, if you’re really committed,” the mother said.
“The stairs! I was going to do the stairs!” Sandy said, backing away. He turned and hurried off in a different direction.
Sarah walked around the park, petting dogs, patting babies, asking people if she could help with anything. She said, “I belong to a cult, and I have to do two deeds or they’ll marry me off to an old man.” She was in her 30s, however, so it had no impact, and she was accidentally overheard by Gordon, who wasn’t pleased.
Being overheard by Gordon meant she probably wouldn’t rank very high in the next morning meeting, and indeed she didn’t. They discussed whether forcing the stroller up the stairs would be a “good” even if the recipients didn’t want it. This took a great deal of time, and Sarah found the discussion both interesting and funny. How could you examine something apart from the consequences — and yet some people insisted on it. Then the discussion turned to Sarah and her claims that she belonged to a cult. A joke, she said. Everyone understood it was a joke, an icebreaker. Still, they discussed appropriate and inappropriate approaches. She apologized and said she had a weird sense of humor, which she would squash in the name of charity.
Luckily, she was able to redeem herself the very next day. She was standing on the lawn at Bryant Park, looking at people walking around the perimeter, or seated at tables and chairs, or lining up at some of the kiosks, when she heard a boy’s plaintive voice. He was in his middle teens, she thought, looking over at him. He was standing near a couple at a table, and his hand was out. A beggar! she thought joyfully and hurried over before someone else in the group could claim him.
“My mom will be so mad at me,” the boy was saying. “I promised I’d be home for dinner, but they took all my money and my cell phone and now I don’t know what to do.”
“You should go to the police,” the man he was talking to said.
“Definitely. Maybe they can catch him,” his companion replied.
“What happened?” Sarah asked in her most sympathetic voice. It came out a little too interested, maybe even prurient.
“I went to the library for my term paper,” he said. “It’s got some illustrations I wanted to see. But I got mugged when I got to the subway. I put my stuff down for a second. I had a backpack.” His face crumbled a bit. “I’m such a jerk! And I promised my mom I’d be back by the time she got home. She works. She gave me $20 and it’s gone!” His lip quivered; his eyes were bright.
“I’ll make sure you get home,” Sarah said, patting his arm. “Don’t worry. It’s how you learn. I mean, we all get robbed once, right?” She looked at the couple nearby, and they nodded vaguely.
“I’ll give you my phone number,” the boy said. “Mom’s not home now but you can tell her where to send the money.” He looked immensely grateful.
Sarah looked in her purse. Two singles and a twenty. Surely the singles would be too little but the twenty maybe too much? She weighed it briefly, then handed over the twenty. “That would be great. I’ll call her tonight to make sure you got home all right.”
The boy practically skipped away.
“I didn’t see him!” someone in the group said at the next discussion. “I would have bought him lunch. Poor kid.”
“I would have rented a car and driven him home,” another claimed.
“Give Sarah credit,” Gordon said. “She did a good thing. How can we see this as an opportunity to do more outreach?”
“Well,” Deb said, “maybe he was actually a runaway and he isn’t going home.” She smiled apologetically at Sarah. “I mean, you only know what they tell you, right? But what if we got a flyer or a pamphlet or something with numbers for agencies and safe houses and whatever there is for runaways? Just in case we think someone might be one?”
Gordon was delighted and immediately encouraged this project. Personally, Sarah threw away any pamphlets that landed in her own hands. She considered telling them this and then realized that there was a hidden good in not telling them. She beamed.
This doing good stuff could rack up pretty quickly.
That afternoon didn’t go as well, however. In the park, she spotted an elderly man with a cane and two shopping bags. She actually felt a little thrill as she neared him, but just at the pivotal moment, her hand reaching out, Sandy cut her off. “May I help you?” he cried, grappling a shopping bag out of the old man’s grip and turning him quickly away from Sarah.
“I was just—,” she said, but the old man was looking up at Sandy, nodding his head. It was too late. Still, she brought it up at the next morning meeting.
“Shouldn’t we be courteous to each other?” she asked demurely. “Not interfere with another person’s attempt to do good?”
“I didn’t even see you!” Sandy protested.
“Sarah,” Gordon said gently. “Give him the benefit of the doubt. Always give people the benefit of the doubt and remember that the goal is to see the good be done, not to take credit for
it. We discuss it here, yes, because we need to see what can be done, how easily each little step can be done. But it’s not for you, not exclusively. Remember that the point of doing good is to have the good out there.”
She nodded stonily. Sandy caught her eye and grinned.
The next day, after they returned from their various experiments with enlarging the world’s store of good, Sarah made a sweet announcement.
“I released my good into the wild,” she said.
The group looked at her with interest. “What does that mean?” Gordon asked.
“A woman was sitting on a bench, and I gave her five single dollar bills. I said she could keep it or give it to someone she thought needed it more. She looked at me like she thought there was some trick, so I just walked away.”
“I’ve seen that on TV or somewhere,” Deb said. “It’s not a new idea.”
“Does it have to be new?”
“It doesn’t have to be new,” Gordon said.
At least one other person looked annoyed. “It seems like cheating,” one observed.
“How can it be cheating?” Sarah asked. “I mean, what if it isn’t an original idea? Is helping a mother with a stroller new? Not exactly. Not really. So I’m just using all my resources.”
“Five dollars,” someone muttered.
“I would love it if all of you gave me five dollars. Money is important. In our society. So sharing money is a good thing.” She felt her argument growing stronger.
“I thought we were going for the more … intangible goods,” Sandy said.
“I don’t think we’re getting the point of this exercise,” Gordon objected. “She’s giving someone else the opportunity and means to do something good. How can that be wrong? Unless you’re saying she did it to get attention? To show off? If so, show off better — with better results. The ego is inescapable. But if you train your ego to get satisfaction from doing some good in the world, that’s fine. Really, if you got rid of your ego altogether, you wouldn’t do anything at all.”
Sarah grinned, but everyone else obviously felt this was going too far.
“How can you call it good if you’re doing it to be called good?” one asked. “Isn’t that just a weird version of pride?”
“Is it?” Gordon asked. “Is it possible to do anything without pride? Isn’t it better to do something good out of pride than something bad?”
“Is it?” someone challenged.
“Would the world be a better place if everyone gave away five dollars?” Sandy asked.
“How can we know? How can anyone know? Maybe she kept it for herself.” This from Deb, who had held a coffee for a man who wanted to answer his cell phone, then dropped the coffee.
“Then one woman had five dollars as a gift. Does that result in anything bad?”
“Maybe she spent it on booze. Or she bought cigarettes. Cigarettes are evil.”
“They cost more than five dollars,” someone murmured.
“I don’t care. What I’m saying is that it might not have been used for good purposes.”
Sarah noted that there were two people agreeing with Sandy every time he spoke. But Gordon agreed with her.
The group was falling apart. The competitiveness was so obvious that by the fifth day, Gordon was begging them all to calm down and not force their concept of good on everyone else.
“Are you saying good is relative?” one of Sandy’s friends — Chris — said.
“Of course it’s relative,” Gordon said, a little edgy. “Giving shoes to the shoeless is good. Giving homes to the homeless is better. Training the marginalized for good jobs and good incomes is even better. It’s all good. It’s just that some of it has longer benefits.”
They stared at him, annoyed. They shifted in their chairs. What was the point of trying to be good if they couldn’t be best? Gordon grabbed his chin with his left hand. He was doing that often.
The next day Sarah was just getting out of the subway when she heard a familiar voice saying he had been robbed and he was supposed to be home and his mom would be so mad at him. It was Saturday afternoon, the penultimate day of the workshop. She stopped dead in her tracks. That liar! That cheat! That thief! She didn’t stop to argue herself into a more perfect frame of mind. She felt the need for vengeance. She headed toward the voice, chuffing and invigorated.
“Don’t listen to him!” she cried to the couple who were already checking their pockets. (So fast? Were they tourists?) “He told me the same damn crap a few days ago, the exact same story! And he couldn’t even think to move to another spot! Don’t you know people have patterns, you idiot? What do you think, everyone but you comes here once and goes home?”
She was panting. The tourists were already backing away. She saw Sandy just a little way down the street, coming toward her but slowing down. Obviously sizing up the situation. She
appealed to him. “This guy is a thief! I just caught him in the act! Help me!”
Surprisingly, Sandy sped up. The kid was swinging his backpack over his shoulder, prepared to dart for the subway, but Sarah was in front of him. Sandy blocked the other route. He bolted straight ahead, willing to take a nosedive into traffic, but a stroller blocked him just at the last moment. God bless strollers!
“Grab him! Thief!” Sarah cried, and two young men passing by reached out and grabbed him. He resisted weakly and began to cry. Sarah saw someone on a cell phone call 911, and within minutes an officer came running out of the park.
The kid was crying harder. She told herself that’s probably what he always did when he got caught. Clearly, if he kept coming back to the same spots, he must get caught often.
A crowd was gathering. The officer asked her who the kid robbed, and she said, “Well, I gave him money because he said he lost his money and had to get home, and then I heard him asking someone else for money with the same reason. I gave him $20. So he lied.”
The officer relaxed his grip a bit. “So he didn’t forcibly take money from you. He asked for it.” It wasn’t even a question.
“Yes.” This suddenly didn’t feel good. And was that Gordon and someone else from the group coming to see what was going on?
The officer turned to the kid. “Panhandling?” he asked.
The kid sensed a lack of hostility. He rubbed his eyes. “I lost the money she gave me,” he said.
“That was four days ago.” She was outraged.
“Sarah,” Gordon said, his voice raised so she would notice him.
“Was he aggressive towards you, ma’am?” the officer asked.
“No, he lied. He cheated. He ripped me off!”
“Those technically aren’t crimes. Not unless he was aggressive. So, live and learn.” He turned to the kid. “Beat it. Go somewhere else. If I see you here, I’ll follow you around like a hawk. Like a hungry hawk.” He nodded, satisfied with his threat, and the kid took off quickly.
“Sarah,” Gordon repeated. He was in front of her now. “How do you think you handled that?”
She gaped at him. Was she supposed to feel foolish? She was saving people from being ripped off. She took a breath, however. She was going to do this right. She saw that a few more people from the group had joined Gordon and Sandy. “I did the tourists good by defending them from a lying panhandler who would only take their money,” she said. “I did him some good by showing him there are consequences to his actions. I did myself good by standing up for what’s right. I did the group good by demonstrating that this is not a passive activity.” She couldn’t think of anything else.
“That’s what you think,” he said. “How do you feel?”
The tourists were looking at her, as well as a few office workers, and Gordon and her own group, too, all of them watching her. It was odd to be so watched. She remembered the sound of the kid’s pleading voice, liar though he was, and she almost regretted spoiling things for him. Why should she regret it? She had done the right thing, the proper thing, the good thing, the thing that was setting the world back into its legal orbit. Gordon, of course, believed that if anyone asked
you for money, you should give them money, out of respect for whatever need they had, real or not. Some people imagined they were poor; some people saw success as a beggar as success in life. Maybe the boy felt emotionally abandoned. Should she have to figure that out? Should she also have sympathy for the beggars with guns and the needy who broke windows? For the lonely with a hard-on following quickening steps down a dark street? How far did it go, this desire to be good and love the fallen? She was sure Gordon wanted her to repent, but she wouldn’t. She saw the curious eyes looking at her, reaching a conclusion, and then moving on with their lives. Untouched by this little morality play. Unmoved by the implications, such as they were. Hearing the moderate, sensible tone of Gordon asking her how she felt, and hearing her silence.
Well, how did she feel? She lifted her chin. “I feel good,” she said. “Really, really good.”