Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.
Some readers may recognize that line from “Futurama,” Matt Groening’s science fiction cartoon set 1,000 years in the future. During its run, this cult-classic series won six Primetime Emmys, nine Annie awards (for animated television), and an additional nine other awards based on writing and acting. On March 17, 2002 they launched an episode titled “Godfellas” in which Bender, one of the main characters, through a series of unlikely events, is perceived to be a god, and then later meets God. God explains to Bender that being a God isn’t easy. “if you do too much people get dependent on you. And if you do nothing, they lose hope…when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
At the end of the episode, (spoiler) Bender helps free some trapped monks because he believes that God won’t do anything for them. The camera then pans to God who repeats the line “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” Futurama, as a series, is equal parts silly, serious, poignant, and touching, and this episode managed to capture all of of those qualities. Television shows, movies, music, literature, and poetry are a wellspring of inspirational quotes and storylines. And this particular series covered some pretty profound themes for a lighthearted, animated sitcom.
On the Job
One of the reasons why this quote is so insightful is that it has many layers. On a superficial level, almost everybody can relate to it. People rarely notice a job well done. I used to have a cat, I tried to clean the litter box fairly regularly and most visitors never thought anything about it. That changed if I forgot to clean it or got too tied up to attend to it. Suddenly, everybody was aware that there was a litter box in the house. If you’re a lighting technician at a concert, and you perform flawlessly, most patrons won’t notice a difference. But woe to the tech who misses a cue, everybody will notice the mistake.
Many employees feel under appreciated. They feel like they’re hard working, efficient, and capable people whose bosses are just too obtuse to appreciate the hard work and dedication that they’re putting into the job. To an extent, this is true. Most bosses don’t understand exactly what goes into a job and all the tiny details that a person attends to in the course of a day. Of course, the flip side to that is that most employees don’t understand the amount of work that is expected of their management either. Until, that is, something goes wrong. A new manager or employee who can’t handle the position will alert almost everyone to the hard work and diligence of the exemplary employee. When you make a mistake it tends to be obvious, when you do something right, nobody will be sure that you’ve done anything at all.
It would behoove us all to remember the little things in life that run so smoothly that we never notice. The Barista who got your order right, the custodian at your job who keeps your trash can emptied, the mechanic who keeps your car running. Sure, it’s their job to do those things, but they’re putting in the effort and the skill needed to do it right. And we can be sure that they’re doing it right because we didn’t notice anything amiss. In fact, they did it so well, that we didn’t notice anything at all. Let them know that you notice their work and appreciate their efforts, small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness go a very long way.
On a deeper level, the quote works because it can extend to those who work for the good of others. Everybody noticed Mother Theresa. Some people noticed her because they admired her work and the good she did for others. Critics noticed her because of her faults and frailties. Either way, whether she was doing something right or wrong, people noticed. On the other hand, nobody noticed that you gave money to a homeless person on the freeway a couple of weeks ago. Nobody noticed that you donated your shirt to Goodwill, gave blood to the Red Cross, or contributed ten percent of your paycheck to Unicef. People may not know that your friend cleans garbage off the streets in her spare time, or that your nephew mows the lawn of his elderly neighbor. You acted charitably, did the right thing, and nobody knew that you did anything at all.
The world may never know about your charitable contributions, but the needy do. Even if you gave anonymously, they still know that they’re being helped. Picking up a soda can out of a parking lot and throwing it away isn’t going to attract the attention of the mainstream media, but you still made the world a cleaner place. Helping a stranger find their missing dog won’t make the morning paper, but by doing so you brought immeasurable joy to your fellow brother or sister and possibly saved the dog’s life. For most people it’s enough that they know they did good, even without any kind of fanfare. They enjoy the satisfaction that comes with doing a job well or the joy of helping others, and that’s all the thanks they need.
A charitable act of kindness may never be known to the world, but it’s known by God. Theologically, there is a small bit of debate about whether one should let their acts of kindness be known to the world. Some people feel that by announcing good deeds, be it their own or the actions of others, it may inspire others to be charitable. Attitudes are contagious and if a person sees you give your time volunteering at a nursing home, that may prompt them to do likewise. For other people it may not occur to them to act in a kind manner, until they see another’s example. Take the “ice bucket challenge,” for instance. Many people had never even heard of the debilitating and fatal ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), but after that campaign went viral the ALS foundation had received record breaking donations which allowed them make a breakthrough in their research. Surely those outcomes from such open acts of charity can only be seen as positive.
While, there can be obvious good from making charity public, one must be sure that their own personal glory is not the motivating factor. In Matthew 6:2-4, Jesus warns against righteousness for the sake of publicity. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret, then your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Anonymously paying a month’s rent of a disabled veteran on a pension, or buying a week’s worth of groceries for a widow who goes to your church may go unnoticed by everyone else and that’s okay. The world may never know that you donated plasma, and that’s okay too. Because God in heaven sees what you do in private. He knows all about your righteousness. When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all, but God will.
The Light Touch
The quote also works on a greater, theological level. If it is true for us humans that a job well -done is a job unacknowledged, how much greater does that adage apply to God? A couple of days ago I wrote about theodicy and free will. God doesn’t interfere with the decisions of man, so when men choose evil we tend to blame God for it. Why didn’t God stop Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Osama bin Ladin, or any of the other numerous monsters who have caused wanton death or destruction? Why didn’t God stop the Tsunami in 2004 or Hurricane Harvey? God rarely acts in big, flashy ways and He follows the rules of nature, physics, and free will. So when bad things happen we’re quick to blame Him, asking where He is and demanding answers.
Yet when things go right, we’re silent. When the sun sets in a vivid array of neon colors, and the full moon rises bright and beautiful, where are we then? We didn’t die today, are you thankful? When the Big Bang exploded 13.82 billion years ago, creating the universe and all that was in it, did you acknowledge God? Proverbs 20:12 says that “Ears that hear and eyes that see-the Lord has made them both.” Do you take them for granted? You’re reading this, did you thank God for a functioning left cerebral hemisphere that allows you to process language? If you are well-fed or even over fed, did you praise God for the bounty?
There is beauty and goodness all around us. When God does things right, nobody is sure that He did anything at all. Yet the world continues to spin on its axis. Hearts continue to beat, birds continue to fly, the sun continues to rise and set. It’s a beautiful world, and it runs so smoothly that we seldom give it a second thought. God did all of that for a world that often fails to admit He even exists. God did something else right; He created you. You are here to act as His right- hand man, to do all the good you can for as long as you can. In the aforementioned Godfellas episode; God arranged for Bender to find his friends and save some monks. Bender never acknowledged God’s role in that, and helped the monks because he believed that nobody else would. God had previously told Bender that He never interfered, but used a “light touch” to guide humanity. Let God work through you. Be the light in a dark world. Nobody may ever realize that you’ve done good, but be good anyway. Let God guide you, be the vessel that He uses to help others. Even if, in the end, nobody is sure you’ve done anything.
© 2017 Anna Watson