Doing “the right thing” won’t make you happy

I have a student with a dilemma: She’s 17 and pregnant. She hasn’t told the father, because blood is sacred to him; he will never let the child go, and neither will anyone in his family. This may sound like a good thing–until you realize what kind of a family he comes from. Let’s just say it’s… well organized.

She had fun dabbling on the wild side with this young man. He’s smart. He’s chivalrous. He treats her like a queen–if she remembers her place. But she also wants a different life for her child–one where women can make their own decisions and show their faces in public alone and never fear the law.

She cannot bear the thought of aborting her child, OR of raising it in connection with this family, so she’s absolutely paralyzed with indecision. She thinks maybe I have the answer. I don’t know what to tell her.

After a solid hour of crying, she uttered this heart-wrenching plea: “I just want to know what the right thing to do is. I’ll do it.”

I asked her what she meant by the “right” thing.

Right. Like… you do the right thing–and it makes you happy. That. I don’t know what that is, though.”

Looking at this beautiful, lost, terrified child, I didn’t know how to tell her the truth: Most of the time, doing the right thing doesn’t make you happy. It might make you stronger, kinder, smarter, or more patient–but let’s face it: experiences that require making the “right” choice almost never come with grins and giggles.

Experiences like this don’t even come with a deep, abiding sense of satisfaction that while what you are doing is difficult, it will all be worth it in the end.  If they did, they wouldn’t have the power to shape you into something better than the you who first engaged with that experience.

Making a choice that has a highly probable chance of reward  isn’t doing “the right thing”; it’s doing the logical thing:

  • If I don’t succumb to this addiction, I will live a healthier life and enjoy better relationships.
  • If I don’t say what I’m really thinking right now, I won’t have to try to take it back later. 
  • If I tell the  truth about this, I might lose this friendship, but I won’t lose my sense of integrity.

1+1=2. Duh. Of course doing those things make you happy.

But some of our most important choices cannot be made with expectation of–even eventual–personal reward. Sometimes doing the right thing will benefit other people–even strangers or future generations you may never meet.

And what if doing those right things is going to result in diminished prospects or vastly increased pain or uncertainty or loneliness for yourself? What if it opens you up to sustained or unending recurrences of that pain? What then? Is it no longer “the right thing”? (And in this case, what is that “right” thing? Give up her scholarship for next year and disappear so that he can’t find her? Go against all her instincts that rebel at the thought of killing her child, to save it from what she sees as a worse fate, later?)

The reality is, most of the time, the experiences that shape us most profoundly don’t have a foreseeable end. They are of the “thorn in the flesh” variety that Paul spoke of–those difficulties that afflict us  relentlessly and come back again and again, just when we think we’ve seen the last of them. Those are the things that refine our characters–and they don’t make us happy.

Yes, eventually, that refining process can  result in greater emotional or spiritual or psychological stability, which can translate into greater capacity for happiness–but let’s face it: capacity doesn’t equate with content, most of the time.

Is it not dangerous to promise younger generations that doing the right thing will make them happy? Is it setting them up for disillusionment and failure? Would it be more accurate to promise that doing the right thing will make them better humans?

I mean… I guess that’s a happy thought, all by itself,  so maybe I’m talking in circles.

 

 


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