I do a lot of things to keep my wife happy. I’m not sure whether any of them actually work, but I try. That’s my primary motivation for doing whatever housework I do, and I often end up cooking dinner, washing dishes, folding laundry, picking up toys, dusting the furniture (haha just kidding, who really does that anymore?), or getting up with the kids. Not to say I do it more than necessary, or even enough, but I try. When I don’t want to empty the dishwasher, I tell myself that if I don’t do it then she will have to. Sometimes it even helps, and I somewhat begrudgingly put up every plate and cup. It lets me feel good about myself while I do it, having such selfless reasons.
While congratulating myself, I begin to think how my wife should appreciate everything I do, so that she can’t get upset if I don’t do this or ask her to do that. I wonder whether that’s not my primary motivation. It’s hard not to keep score, to try to get what I want by doing things I’m supposed to do. I feel as though I need to earn my allowances. I tell myself to stop thinking this way, to stop complaining and comparing and congratulating. At this point, I’m conflicted and a bit confused, but at least the dishes are almost done.
It’s easy to play this game with anything we do. We’re great at rationalizing our worst impulses and corrupting our best intentions. Why do I eat salad and exercise (not that I do, this is purely hypothetical)? It is because I want to be healthy and take care of my body? Because I am self-conscious about my weight and appearance? Because I enjoy the taste and the activity? Because my wife not-so-subtly suggests I should? Or why do I yell at the dog? Is it really to teach her not to eat off the table or snatch things from the kids’ hands? Or is to unleash my frustration at her making my life—and dinnertime—more difficult? Do I not love her? Or is it that she won’t respond to anything else? Why do I write this blog? Am I trying to use my gifts in a productive way to help and entertain people? Or am I using them to try to impress people and show how smart I am? Do I do it for myself, because I enjoy it and don’t have another outlet and because it is good practice? Yes.
When we think about why we do the things we do, “Free Will” doesn’t quite capture the reality. The human heart contains many different wills, as many as it has desires, and rarely are they all aligned. A decision less a conscious choice than a struggle amongst competing wills, which is why developing habits are a more effective means of changing our behavior than willpower. You have to train and reinforce your better will over time or you won’t be able to resist whichever is the strongest in the moment.
It also means that our decisions and our reasons are never as pure as we want to believe. Maybe it seems obvious that we should work to follow our desire to love and serve others while resisting the desire for selfish gain and personal recognition and hatred of others. If you’re really wanting to mug that person on the street or leave a nasty comment on facebook, consider not giving in to that temptation. But what do you do when both desires point in the same direction? Should I not do any housework because I’m tempted to do it for my own good rather than my wife’s?
Such an extreme level of introspection, although useful for writing this blog, is not a healthy activity. It can paralyze our decisions and strip the enjoyment and satisfaction of doing good. Yet some level of understanding is necessary to prevent self-righteousness and give grace to ourselves and to others. It’s tempting to build up our politicians or philanthropists or public figures who do good things and advocate for good causes as being heros of pure hearts. How many times can we be shocked by revelations of abuse or impropriety or fraud? Our condemnations are swift and absolute, but a brief look at ourselves would have told us what to expect. Hypocrisy is a terrible sin, but if you’ve ever tried to do the right thing, it’s also inevitable. We don’t do goods things because we are unfalteringly perfect, nor do we fail because we are irredeemably evil. Everything we do requires grace.
I shouldn’t berate myself for that moment of resentment or calculation while doing the dishes, nor should I let every selfish reason prevent me from doing it. I have to satisfy myself with trying to do good, knowing that my motives may never be pure.