Good turns, blackmail and horses on the rampage

21 06 2011

This morning, I heard that phrase again: “I owe you one.” On this occasion, it was inspired by opening a door for someone who had forgotten his keys.

I try to live by the maxim “treat others as one would like others to treat oneself”. As far as I’m concerned, this is not the same thing as “one good turn deserves another”.

To me, treating others as one would like to be treated encompasses things like letting out cars at junctions, letting pedestrians cross the road, picking up things that people have dropped, letting children jump the queue in public toilets, giving the person in front of you at the supermarket checkout 5p when they find they’re short of change, helping look for a lost puppy – small things that make the world a friendlier place.

On a slightly less pleasant note, it also covers the converse: owning up when you do something wrong. No, going and telling a neighbour that your cricket ball has gone through their window or that you’ve run over their kitten is not a nice thing to have to do, but a little discomfort on your part will save a lot of headache and heartache on theirs.

When we were kids, one of our cats went missing. If the neighbours whose dog had got him had owned up, we’d have cried, had a funeral and moved on, rather than spending weeks putting up notices and riding round on our bikes looking for him.

“One good turn deserves another” is a little different. The debt should be in the eyes of the person who received the favour, not in the eyes of the person who did it! Doing someone a ‘good turn’ with the expectation of getting something in return is only going to lead to upset.

It seems to me, though, that we seem to have got into a mindset where we think we ‘deserve’ favours – people do things for others with the expectation of getting something in return. I have no problem with making up-front agreements. I’d be quite happy with, say, doing a couple of nights’ babysitting in return for someone looking in on the cats and watering the plants if we went away. What really grates on me, though, is when people try to hold favours over one another.

What I’m getting at is don’t expect payment for something you’ve offered for free and equally don’t ask for something for nothing.

Suppose Simon passes Adrian’s gate and sees that it is broken. Simon goes and gets some wood from home and patches up that gate so that Adrian’s dog doesn’t escape. Adrian thanks Simon when he next sees him. A couple of weeks later, Simon asks Adrian to lend him £50 and Adrian say he’s sorry, but he doesn’t have any money to spare at the moment. Simon gets annoyed and says “What? That’s all the thanks I get for fixing your gate? That took ages and I used my own wood – do you not think you owe me?”

Simon’s gone into this voluntarily, without any arrangement for repayment of any kind. He’s then making demands of Adrian that Adrian in unable and/or unwilling to fulfil. He is using his having fixed the gate as leverage for emotional blackmail. The potential consequences for Adrian are a) jeopardising his friendship with Simon and b) being perceived as miserly and ungrateful by others or c) running into problems because he’s lent Simon money that he didn’t have or needed for something else. If Simon likes Adrian enough to fix his gate, surely he wouldn’t want to make him feel like that?

It strikes me that what it all boils down to is a lack of consideration and empathy. We are all so wrapped up in our individual, materialistic bubbles, inhabited only by ourselves and the content of the media available to us, that we have lost touch with one another on a human level. We interact with one another as we would interact with a computer game. We don’t do things like stealing because we might get in trouble, rather than out of consideration for the victim.

A few weeks ago, as I was driving home, three horses ran across the road a few feet in front of my car. I pulled over onto the verge, grabbed my halter, which, luckily, was still on the passenger’s seat, and got out. As I got out of the car, a white van pulled up in front of it and a man and a girl got out with a bucket and a couple of halters. They said that the horses belonged to a friend. By this point, the horses were galloping up and down a busy road, in a 60mph limit. All in all, it took about 30 minutes to catch them and get them back into their field. While we were trying to catch them, the traffic was pretty much at a standstill. Some drivers started using their horns and others were forcing their way round, driving half on the verge. Only one other person got out of her car, not to help, but to complain that it was taking too long to catch them. The man explained that one of them bit and kicked when it didn’t want to be caught and one wasn’t halter-broken. The woman tutted and flounced back to her car.

Several people whom I have told about the incident have expressed surprise that I stopped and helped catch the horses; they would have informed the police and carried on. Reasons given for not stopping have included not knowing to whom the horses belonged, being scared of horses or not knowing how to catch them and “the horses’ owner wouldn’t do the same for you; you don’t owe them anything”. My perspective is that the horses’ owner isn’t the only one benefitting – there could have been a really serious accident. All those people sitting angrily and impatiently in their cars were benefitting. There was plenty they could have done without leaving their cars – blocking the road would have been a good start!

I find it really difficult to understand the mentality that says “it’s not my problem” and prioritises getting to the theatre/cinema/pub/work on time over a potential hazard that could kill or harm others. We have become a selfish, selfish society, if it’s really come to that.

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