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True Goodness

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“In the Spring-Autumn Period, there was a country named Lu. Because there were other countries which took their citizens as slaves or servants, the country of Lu made a law which rewarded those who paid the ransom to regain the freedom of their fellow citizens. At that time, Confucius had a very rich student named Zi Gong. Although Zi Gong paid for the ransom to free his people, he did not accept the reward for doing such a deed. He did it out of good intentions, seeking only to help others and not for the reward money.

But when Confucius heard this, he was very unhappy and scolded him, saying,

‘You acted wrongly in this matter. When saints and sages undertake anything, they strive to improve the social demeanor, teaching the common folk to be good and decent people. One should not do something just because one feels like it. In the country of Lu, the poor outnumber the wealthy. By refusing the reward, you lead others to think accepting the reward money is being greedy. Thus, all the poor people and others who do not wish to appear greedy will hesitate to pay for ransom in the future. Only very rich people will have a chance to practice this deed. If this happens, no one will pay the ransom to free our people again.’

Another student of Confucius, Zi Lu, once saw a man drowning in a river and went forth to rescue him. Later, the man thanked him by giving him a cow as a token of gratitude. Zi Lu accepted the gift.

Confucius was happy when he heard this and said,

‘In the future, people will be willing and eager to help those who are drowning in deep waters or lakes.’

If we look from the view of the common people, Zi Gong, who did not accept the reward money, was good. And Zi Lu, who accepted the cow, was not as good. Who would have known that Confucius praised Zi Lu instead and scolded Zi Gong?

From this, we can see that those who practice kind deeds must not only look at the present outcome, but should consider the act’s effect in the long run. One should not only consider one’s own gain and loss, but should look to see the impact made on the public. What we do right now may be good, but with passing years, it may inflict harm upon others. Therefore, what seems like goodness may in fact be the opposite. And what appears to be the opposite of goodness may someday turn out to be goodness done after all.

There are other examples of what appears to be goodness, but actually is not. For example, there are many things people ought to do. But sometimes, these things prove to be better left undone.

[1] Forgiveness is a virtue, but it cannot be used without reason and wisdom. If we easily forgive and release a criminal when he has not repented and reformed, we may be letting loose a threat to society, causing more harm than good. In this case, forgiveness would be improper, and the man would be best left in his cell.

[2] Everyone ought to have manners, but they should be carried out with good measure. Overdoing your courtesy to others can result in making them proud and arrogant. In this case, it would not be a good thing.

[3] Keeping to one’s word is a virtue. But if trouble is caused to keeping a small promise, then that would be considered improper.

[4] Being loving and compassionate is a wonderful trait, but if compassion is carried out by allowing anything to be done, then the spoiled person would be daring and unrestrained, causing greater harm and trouble in the future. This would be most unmerciful.

These are all examples of what appears to be goodness, but actually is not, and should be thoroughly contemplated.”


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