“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” (Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). True about the evil! What about the good?
One has to admit that evil deeds have long lives. A drunken father abuses his wife and children, and they bear scars for the rest of their diminished lives. Their best selves are often crushed. The poet wrote “what all school children learn”: “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return” (W. H. Auden). A young woman traffics with drugs and adds strands to a web and network that creates gangs, corrupts politicians, impoverishes many, and leaves corpses in the dust.
An old proverb states that the fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Once in a class of older adults, I thought a demonstration would help. I invited Farmer Jones forward and gave him a sip of vinegar. “How do your teeth feel?” I asked. He smiled and responded, “They’re false, so they don’t feel.” So much for my pedagogical smarts!
Evil people doing evil deeds become notorious celebrities. Their deeds are highlighted in both media and history. The worse their deeds, the longer their atrocities are recounted and darken future lives, just as the same deeds have already crushed lives and hopes of many. One reason evil is highlighted in the media is due to what some scholars refer to as “a negativity bias.” We will stare at something negative for a lot longer and with more emotion than we will stare at something positive and calming. For example, photographs or videos of a car wreck seem more compelling than seeing someone handing out flowers beside the road. Advertisers and producers bank on that, even though we complain about bad news dominating the media. Evil is front-page headline; good is buried in the back. A positive event is only news if it is odd, outlandish, or extremely rare, as, for example, injured toddlers saved by wild dogs during a blizzard.
Mark Anthony’s statement is more about reputation than substance. We should remember and praise good deeds. Good deeds often gain no public attention, with only one in 10 returning to express appreciation. Nevertheless, good deeds have long legs. Commonplace stories are numerous — a word of praise, a helping hand lifting a person from difficulty, the gift of a scholarship for a poor student, or a welcome to a stranger. Recipients whose lives have been enhanced and transformed tell stories. Like pebbles tossed into a pond, the ripple effects of good deeds reach generations.
Good deeds enrich lives of individuals and groups who do them, which is a blessing without price. Greed wilts lives, generosity enriches lives; hatred burns a hole in the spirit of an individual or group, love causes spirits to soar; evil generates internal cesspools, good deeds generate flourishing lives and communities. Auden’s poem concludes, “We must love one another or die.” A wise proverb says simply, “It is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35). Richard Gunderman, a Wabash College alumnus, wrote a book highlighting the saying, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Please note that across the world — and in Montgomery County — flourishing is not accomplished by poem or proverb, but by good deeds in working clothes. Few people can help solve systemic challenges regarding current and future evils. All of us can contribute to a better present and future for ourselves and our neighbors by doing the next good thing that is before us. Thereby, evil shrinks, and good deeds live after us. That’s a legacy worth our best efforts.
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.