“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.

Changing choirs

Twenty years ago I joined the alto section of the choir of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland. My previous musical experience had been rather limited – as a child I reluctantly attended some piano lessons, and as a student I sang in the chorus of The Pirates of Penzance. But in 2001 the cathedral choir was open to anybody who wanted to join, no audition required. There were about 30 members. It was all new to me but I sat next to an experienced singer, Marion, who took me under her wing and has remained a close friend ever since.

I loved singing the sacred music, including well-known classics such as Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Renaissance motets by composers such as Tallis and Palestrina, and occasionally more modern works such as John Rutter’s Magnificat. I bought a piano, took some more lessons and did well in a theory exam although my practical skills hardly improved.

Apart from the beauty of the music, a benefit of belonging to the choir was meeting people of all ages and a wide range of nationalities including Filipino, Samoan, Korean, Chinese, American, French as well as both Maori and Pakeha native New Zealanders. I was usually the only English person there.

Over the years there were many changes. Old members left, new ones joined, and we had a series of musical directors each with their own different methods. The trend has been towards a smaller group with stricter technical standards.

Belonging to the choir was a wonderful experience but couldn’t last for ever. Others had retired when they turned 70 – I stayed till 74, but was starting to find it arduous. The rehearsals and services were longer than in the old days, transport from home was more frequently delayed, and decreasing stamina made it harder to cope with the physical demands. After breaking my wrist recently I had to take two months off anyway, and then I made the hard decision not to go back. Leaving felt sad, and still does, though I do appreciate having extra free time on Sunday mornings.

I wanted to continue some singing, because I enjoy it very much and it has many proven benefits – physiological, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social. So I have now joined a women’s community choir, which is more local, and involves attendance only once a week instead of twice. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, but some of the music is quite challenging, with songs in various styles from around the world forming quite a contrast to the repertoire at St Patrick’s.