Little Epistle: Hidden Motives

I was so young I only vaguely remember the incident. But I strongly remember the lesson. My busy father asked me to feed our cow. I threw her a puny mouthful of hay or two and went back to playing. Somehow in my still developing tiny brain I had the feeling my father would think this was cute. His little boy doing the best he could to feed the big cow with the big man-sized pitchfork. I miscalculated. He didn’t think his son was either small or cute. He marched me back to the barn and had me do it right.

Why didn’t that caper come off? The reason was I was kidding myself about my own motivation. I wasn’t trying to be cute. I was trying (and succeeding) to be lazy.

Sometimes our real motivations are subtle and shadowy. But Searching for them is worth the effort. Because once we find them we have struck gold in terms of seeing who we really are and how we can improve.

Sometimes the masquerading motivation is easy to spot, particularly when someone else is claiming it. Who of us buys these lines? “I’m only doing this for your own good.” “It’s not the money. It’s the principle of the thing.” (Note: It’s the money.) “I’m not prejudiced but…”

One day in Calcutta a woman from New York showed up to help Mother Teresa with her work. Mother Teresa cut short the woman’s ambitions and revealed her real motive with a simple question. “Are there no poor in New York?” I suspect the woman herself had not realized her real motivation was to identify with the famous saintly nun rather than participate in the kind of work that had gained Mother Teresa notoriety.

Concealing our true motives even from ourselves comes natural to us as children. When this fuzziness or professed ignorance of our motivations continues into adulthood however it can be a stumbling block to our progress. If we don’t analyze what prompts our thoughts and actions, we will wander along in a fog not quite realizing why life is not bringing to us what we hoped it would.

Philosophers, psychologists, even we common folk may wonder if we really can know what our deep motives are. The apostle Paul may have had something like this in mind when he wrote, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12

My experience has been that the best way to sort out our motives is to ask the Being who knows us better than we know ourselves. Go to Him in humble prayer, and he will help us not only identify our real motives, but improve them, and eventually purify them unto perfection.