Helping Others and Getting Beyond Selfishness

The selfish mind wants everything for itself. It pursues pleasures, seeks more material goods, more food, more attention, and more recognition for its own gain. Happiness, the selfish mind tells itself, is having more and enjoying more. Easy leisure is the number one desire, especially when combined with plush and fancy material possessions that signal our success and value to others.

 

The selfish mind errors. Happiness and real pleasure do not come from simple material possessions. Happiness comes from our interactions with others, particularly when we do something for others that makes them better off, not when we do something that only makes ourselves better off.

 

Seneca recognized this in Rome during the first century. In Letters from a Stoic he writes, “Happy is he man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!”

 

We are social creatures who evolved and grew to take over the planet in groups. We started out in small social tribes, and from there have built massive metropolises. We survive and are dominant because of our social nature, and within that social nature we have evolved to be altruistic toward at least our closest family members and friends. Individually we are vulnerable and limited, but when we come together, we can quite literally move mountains.

 

Cultures across the planet vary in the degree to which they recognize the importance of our social connectedness. Some cultures hold self sacrifices for the greater good at the heart of society, and some cultures hold the family unit as central, while only really recognizing social cohesion on special holidays. Nevertheless, anyplace we look we can see that selfish accumulation does not lead to happiness the way that helping others does.

 

It is interesting that we can derive so much happiness from helping other people and trying to be a role model and someone that brings out the best in others. We seem to get a stronger, more deep, and more lasting sense of happiness and accomplishment when we know that we are doing something meaningful for other people rather than when we just pursue our own self-interest. For two thousand years, and surely before Seneca wrote them down, his words have remained true, and we would benefit in the United States if we remembered to do as much for others as we try to do for ourselves.

Individually Together

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey has an interesting observation about American togetherness in a country that is undoubtedly focused on individual rights, liberties, and successes. Very early in his book he writes, “Our nation speaks of individual rights and freedoms, personal responsibility and self-reliance, and yet we have consistently demonstrated, in spirit and sacrifice, the idea that we are better together—that while our differences matter, our nation matters more.”

 

I like this quote because our individual focused nation often forgets or downplays just how much we rely on one another for the lives we lead. It is very tempting, and even encouraged, to think about what we have done on our own to achieve success. We focus on our individual sacrifices to get the things we want, we reflect on our own hard work to get the promotion we wanted, and enjoy the spotlight when we win accolades and awards, but Booker is acknowledging something operating in the background of our individual focus. We could not have made those sacrifices without help from others, we could not have received the promotion had we not been given the opportunity by someone else, and we would not have received those accolades without the support of others. What we do on our own is only possible with the connections we share with the world.

 

Below the surface we recognize this. We have pride in being American even if we put stickers on our car that say, “Don’t tread on me” and we engage in community service to help strangers we have never met before. But because these connections are hiding away from our main focus, we fail to acknowledge them as powerfully as we should, and we risk isolation over unity. Booker continues, “We make a grave mistake when we assume this spirit of connectedness is automatic or inevitable.” Reveling in our own glory makes it likely  that we will forget just how much we rely on each other, and will make it possible for us to turn against each other or downplay the struggles of others in the face of our own challenges.

 

By recognizing that our individual desires are best achieved when we work and cooperate with others, or that our own goals are only possible in a system where others are united with us, we strengthen ourselves, our communities, and the American democracy. The more we elevate ourselves and turn inward, the more we turn away from bonds that connect our nation, and the more we risk the devolution of the American democratic experiment. Seneca wrote, “he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” Our existence is completely dependent on others, on society, and without others we may subsist, but in no way could we truly exist in any semblance of our current self. Non of what we are is purely born of our own greatness and effort, everything is interconnected with others and with a society that was built and shaped long before we came along.

Deep Human Connections

Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey reflected on his life journey, lessons, relationships, and values in his book, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. Throughout Booker’s experience, giving the title its meaning, he has become profoundly aware of how connected everyone is. Not just everyone in a small community or everyone in a country,  but truly everyone on earth, even including those who have passed away and those yet to be born. Government is about organizing society and society’s resources in a way that allows people to function together, and for Booker, our connections run deeper and are more profound than many of us realize on a daily basis. Focusing on our connectedness he writes,

 

“One of the most valuable things I’ve learned since moving to Newark almost twenty years ago is the need for a deeper awarenss of our human connection. I’ve learned that we must be more courageous in the empathy we extend to one another, we must shoulder a deeper responsibility for one another, and we must act in greater concert with one another”

 

I think it is very easy to become isolated from those around you, and to turn away from community activities and events. We have constant contact to the internet and television provides us with nearly endless entertainment. As a result we find ourselves content to experience reality through digital devices and do not spend as much time outside and in our community as we did in the past. A common complaint of government today is that it is too large and performs too many functions that should be left to the private sector or to charity. The problem with such a complaint is that as we become more isolated and shut in, there are fewer people and community groups willing to put forth the effort to provide food or shelter to homeless, to ensure impoverished communities receive healthcare, and to maintain recreation facilities. As we have lost our sense of being united in the physical world in preference of our sense of being connected through the digital world, we have left much of society without support, and government has been the necessary agent to step in and support the communities and individuals left behind.

 

The paragraph above is my observation, but I think it helps explain how we have ended up in a place where Booker’s comments on unity are refreshing and profound. The more we can recognize and rekindle our connections with those around us and with the world as a whole, the more we develop empathy by understanding the challenges that others face. By getting out and being receptive to the difficulties of the human experience, we can share our lessons in overcoming such difficulties as we help raise up others. When we think of another’s failure as our failure to connect with another person by encouraging and supporting them, we find a new perspective of interconnectedness on our path forward as human beings living together on planet earth.