Yes, I think too much

Rewards, or the lack thereof

with 4 comments

There’s a British comedy series called “Black Adder” about generations of men (played by Rowan Atkinson in his pre-Mr. Bean years) who were complete and utter bastards. The first series takes place in the Middle Ages featuring a prince who attempts to usurp the throne. The second is in Elizabethan times and has the offspring of the prince as a conniving nobleman who schemes unsuccessfully to marry the queen. In the third, his progeny’s progeny is working as a lowly Butler for the prince regent in time of the French revolution. Finally, his descendent is a captain during World War I who attempts to avoid the fate of so many men in that war. In each series, he is a selfish, cynical, mean, and savagely funny.

There is one Christmas special episode though, that portrays one member of the Black Adder line as good-hearted, generous, and kind. During this episode, the lovable doormat Black Adder is given the option of viewing his ancestors and their lives in a reverse playing of “A Christmas Carol”. He sees each of the aforementioned men profiting by their schemes and nastiness, and starts to rethink the path of virtue he has taken. In the end, he is shown two possible futures for himself. If he continues to be good, he ends up a slave. If he follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, he can rule the universe. One can imagine which path he chooses. During the scene in which Robbie Coltrane’s Christmas ghost talks to him about what he learns from what he has seen, he says, “Namely…that the rewards of virtue are largely spiritual, but all the better for it.” Of course, Black Adder himself wonders if the message might actually be that “bad guys have all the fun.”

This episode comes to mind as a result of some choices I’ve made as of late, as well as circumstances that others of my acquaintance have mentioned. I think that part of growing up in a democracy that touts the idea that it is also a meritocracy and which is largely Christian leads one to believe that making the ” right” choice will be rewarded. If you eat your vegetables, you will grow up healthy and strong. If you work hard, you will prosper. If you are a good person, you will go to heaven. If you are generous and charitable, people will be grateful and treat you well.

It’s hard to talk about this without sounding cynical, and I do not mean to be cynical at all. That being said, we often are lead to believe that “right” behavior yields reward. Often it is the case that “right” behavior not only does not bring about a reward, but sometimes is actively punished, especially when that behavior is directed toward self-improvement or psychological or physical health. I do not mean to lapse into a treatise on how “no good deed goes unpunished,” because I’m not that negative (at least not most of the time). However, I do mean to talk about how we need to divorce ourselves of the notion that choices that are good do yield good results for us, particularly when those choices are about fairness and personal valuation.

Recently, I have been doing freelance work for a company that I used to work full-time for. As part of the job, I need to be sent certain information prior to dealing with clients. If the information is not in my hands before the appointed time, it is difficult to do the job. In the past month, the company which gives me these jobs has been dropping the ball. They not only haven’t given me the necessary information after I have specifically requested it multiple times, but the jobs have actually been cancelled twice and I was not informed. Since I am paid “by the piece” according to how much of the task I accomplish, a cancelled job results in wasted time and virtually no pay at all.

I have done the job paid by the piece for several years despite the fact that my hourly rate drops precipitously with one client’s cancellation, but this recent situation in which I not only was forced to plead repeatedly for necessary information (which is not a part of my job) but was also subjected to two cancellations after the job was scheduled to begin resulting in much wasted time and no money. I decided that I was being taken advantage of based on the conditions I accepted and said that, from now on, they pay for my time if they book it regardless of whether or not the clients cancel or fail to take advantage of the service. In essence, instead of paying per completed task, they pay by the hour or I won’t do the job at all.

This choice was one I made out of self-respect. I was being walked all over and my time treated as valueless. This was a “right” choice, but the likely consequence of it will be that I will end up losing this work and they will simply give it to someone else. It’s not because I’m going to be costing them so much more money, but almost certainly because my liaison who dropped the ball and pushed me to offer a changed working condition will want to hide his mistakes. If he presents my case to them, he’ll have to admit that he screwed up several times over the course of weeks such that I changed the working terms. My demands are perfectly reasonable, and not making them would mean I esteem myself quite lowly, but I will almost certainly not be rewarded for my actions.

My recent experience was not the first time I’ve asserted myself reasonably and “rightly” and found that doing so was punished. I was once nearly fired for refusing to work on a day off. The request came from a boss who consistently demanded too much, got much more out of me than anyone else, and who gave me pathetic raises when I got one at all each year. Instead of being rewarded for having a skill set far higher than anyone who might replace me, being an efficient, conscientious and better than competent worker, I was threatened with dismissal for not being a complete doormat.

The rewards of asserting yourself in a manner which preserves your psychological well-being, like those of virtue, are largely spiritual. I may feel less like I’m disempowered and more like I control my destiny, but there will be nothing more to gain from asserting what should be due to me by right of being treated with respect as a human being. In the end, the objective and measurable consequence will almost always be a tangible loss. People don’t respect you if you exercise self-respect. They will simply try to cut you loose for undermining their sense of power over you.


Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 20, 2010 at 5:27 am

4 Responses

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  1. In the big scheme of things, perhaps you weren’t “punished” at all but were invited by reality to take your life in a new direction.

    Perhaps you assume far too much about the go-between person (who you think “dropped the ball” and will be loathe to admit it to the boss.) Maybe this person has really valid reasons (at least in his mind) for every action he has taken. Maybe the reasons are, in fact, noble ones. I can imagine someone caring for an elderly mother in her last days, for instance, and making that process a priority, while not wishing to share that information with others.

    My point is: I never really know WHY people do the things they do, and I cannot assume that someone else’s actions have anything at all to do with me or my actions. In fact, I operate from the position that other people’s actions have virtually no actual connection to me or to what I do or don’t do. It’s very liberating when I don’t “play god” in my head by imagining I can remotely suppose another person’s true inner reality. I hope I haven’t missed the point. It doesn’t appear we are viewing the same universe. 🙂


    October 21, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    • I worked with the go-between for 12 years and know him very, very well. This is someone who hid my accomplishments at work for fear that I’d be viewed as more valuable than he and be chosen to replace him. This is someone who snapped at me to get me to shut up while I was trying to help him accomplish a task he couldn’t manage for fear that others would overhear and realize I had skill he did not. This is someone who tried to keep my husband from getting a temporary job at the same company for fear that my husband would be seen as a replacement for him. He is immensely insecure, and probably for good reason since the company doesn’t appreciate his work. There’s a vast history behind my assumptions here, and they all point to protecting his own interests at the expense of mine.

      And just to make it clear that this wasn’t my filling in his reality with my own assumptions, I asked him why he did these things and he broke down and cried and told me straightforwardly that he feared for his job if the company realized how capable I was. There could be no doubt about it as the words came directly from him.

      Honestly, I almost always know why people do what they do. I have incredible intuition even when I don’t know the people well, and I know this person extremely well. It may be “playing God”, or it may simply be that I have a capacity to understand the inner world of most people uncannily well.


      October 26, 2010 at 9:25 am

  2. Excellent post – & a good reminder to go back & watch those Black Adders again; I could use a good laugh!


    October 27, 2010 at 5:30 pm

  3. “The rewards of asserting yourself in a manner which preserves your psychological well-being, like those of virtue, are largely spiritual.”


    It doesn’t matter why people do what they do. Of course the cultural mythology of rewards for hard work and good deeds results from a socially constructed *reality*. Even wealth and money only exist as electronic blips in computers without the socially constructed control given to those blips by billions of people who are mesmerized by the cultural mythology as surely as children are controlled by stories of Santa and the Easter Bunny.

    It only matters that you are left with something of immeasureable value: your spirituality.


    October 27, 2010 at 9:35 pm

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