Boy oh boy. Sailors in the 17th century English Navy had it tough. Not only did they have to contend with scurvy, caused by vitamin-deficiency (and, interestingly, eventually solved by the Scottish ship’s surgeon James Lind using what was probably the world’s first randomised controlled clinical trial) they were punished pretty mercilessly for the smallest of misdemeanours.
Simply being absent, drunk or disobedient was enough to get a sailor tied to the ship’s mast and flogged with a cat o’ nine tails by another member of the crew. There was, however, a way of doing a deal with another man which minimised the effects of such severe punishment. Apparently you paired up with someone else and agreed to inflict the minimum pain on him in return for this other fellow treating you similarly leniently when it was your own turn to be lashed.
Such light strokes of the whip were termed mere ‘scratches’ and led to a phrase we still use today, probably without realising its original meaning.
You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
Nowadays the expression implies that someone who helps another may benefit from having their favour repaid, and this principle, “reciprocity”, is certainly one way of doing well from doing good. However there can be mood-lifting effects when you help others above and beyond a simple two-way exchange of kindness.
It’s worth remembering, for example, the phenomenon that psychologists refer to as the ‘helper’s high’, the flow of feel-good neurotransmitters which results from nothing more complicated than doing something kind for another person.
Although being kind ought to be simple, it isn’t always. It takes time. It takes attention. It takes thoughtfulness.
But it doesn’t usually cost anything. It doesn’t generally get in the way of the other stuff you have to do. And it doesn’t seem anything other than a fine idea to me.
So please make a mental note to look for small opportunities to help others during the course of the next day. And thank the Lord you’re not a 17th century sailor.