“No good deed goes unpunished”

Actions intended to benefit other people sometimes backfire. They may be perceived as interfering and controlling, or even have tragic results.

I’ve been thinking about this since watching a brilliant performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore by NZOpera and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. In the melodramatic plot, set in fifteenth century Spain, Count di Luna is obsessed with the heroine Leonora. But she is in love with Manrico the troubadour, and spurns Luna’s advances. There is bitter rivalry between the two men and eventually Luna gets Manrico imprisoned and condemned to death. Leonora, in what she sees as a noble sacrifice, offers herself to Luna if he will spare Manrico’s life. But when Manrico learns of Leonora’s plan, instead of being grateful he is disgusted and appalled, and denounces her. Meanwhile, rather than give her body to Luna, she has taken poison. Manrico is executed, and Leonora dies.

The old adage “No good deed goes unpunished” often applies in real life. During 2020 and 2021, the New Zealand government responded to the pandemic by imposing a strict system of lockdowns, mandates and border closures to protect the health of the population. These well-intentioned policies did limit illness and death from Covid in the short term, and gained admiration from around the world. But were they justified when weighed against the long term costs? Businesses failed, unvaccinated workers lost their jobs, other diseases went undiagnosed and untreated, old people were confined indoors and prevented from seeing their relatives even when they were dying. Despite continual exhortations to “be kind”, ugly rifts developed between those who supported the restrictions, and those who resented losing the freedom to direct their own lives.

On a more everyday level, think of the dinner guest who volunteers to do the washing up, only to put things away in the wrong place and break the host’s favourite mug.

My conclusion? It’s good to offer help to other people – but only if it’s done with unselfish motives and if they want to be helped.