I've had the following newspaper clipping on my refrigerator since 2008, when I brought it from the US to my new home in Taiwan. It's a response to a question posed to advice columnist Carolyn Hax.
Why do good when being bad seems to be more rewarding?
Do you believe that what goes around comes around?
I've seen it too much lately where the bad guy wins. The jerk in my office got the promotion. A guy who cheated on me and all the other girls he dated managed to get a nice girl to marry him. My friend was fired unfairly because of a suck-up to the boss who spread lies. I could go on. I'm starting to wonder what living by the Golden Rule is getting me.
I believe what "comes around" for being a jerk -- assuming the jerk doesn't eventually grow into a better person -- is dying alone. Even if you're a jerk with people in your life, your relationships with others are strained, conflicted or outright bad, and so you still die alone even though you have family surrounding your bed. I see a spouse and children who can't admit they hate you except maybe in therapy, and only then if they have the nerve to confront and grow from their problems.
Of course, if you have no conscience, then you don't care. Surely someone cheats for the promotion and gets the girl, and then laughs all the way to the bank while abusing the wife -- who, the classic victim, stays by him till he dies -- and leaves the world feeling like he won the lottery.
But then the question has to be, do you want that life?
I also don't believe "what goes around comes around" just so the good can watch the bad get theirs. Entertaining though it may be.
You feel like the good guy finishing last; I get it, and sympathize. However, the justice in being good is perfect only if you treat goodness as its own reward.
If religious reasons for this didn't stick, here's a pragmatic one: Make it about a promotion or getting the nice girl, and it becomes a quid-pro-quo, clean-your-room-and-you-can-have-dessert system -- which is swell, but logistically impossible. You can see when a room is clean; you can't always know whether an employee is predatory or a mate is cheating, and of course icy roads can't distinguish nice drivers from mean. So at least some spoils are going to be doled out unfairly. And that's before you even begin to tackle the question: Dessert -- good or bad?
So, this is really about how to handle unfairness. If whining made people feel better, the demands for beer, cigarettes, gambling, shopping and corn chips would dry up in 24 hours. If everyone took the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach, society would be gone in a long afternoon of looting.
I suppose you can let everyone else be good while you grab what you want on the sly -- but either it'll torment you or you're as bad as those who disgust you.
If instead you keep treating others as well as you can and make your best guess about the way others are treating you and, when you screw up one of these, try to do better next time, and repeat repeat repeat, then your gratification occasionally may get flecked with envy, frustration and loss. Nevertheless, it will be immediate, constant and in endless supply -- and totally in your control.
From the Washington Post, July 25, 2007
By Carolyn Hax, Washington Post Staff Writer