It would seem like a simple thing — in our work we should help each other rather than compete. We should reinforce one another’s contributions, not tear them down. And yet how good at this are we actually? It’s funny how the competition — for credibility, for worth — can leak out of us in little, subtle ways. The way we write a memo updating colleagues on our work with a tiny zinger attached — almost funny but not. The way we protect ourselves by not sharing all the relevant information, the clipped intonations in how we speak at a meeting, the little resistances we voice to someone else’s opinion, sometimes in veiled or abstract terms, a micro-put-down mailed in a business envelope. Those jibes slip out of us seemingly unintentional — “that’s not what I meant at all” — and yet meaning something. Not an outright slap in the face, but shall we say a strategically applied withdrawal of affection?
It is noticed by anyone and everyone, these cues. Anyone who has ever had a really good relationship at work and knows what that experience is like; how just when you might falter a colleague brings their voice to say something supportive and clarifying; how this comes without any agenda other than to recognize the value of what’s being said. And this not part of some game, but genuinely aims to bring understanding, to get to the heart of thoughts and feelings of the human beings present, to find the meaning in things, to share and collaborate, to find an answer in a way that brings us closer together, not pushes us farther apart as de facto winners and losers. It’s a moment of openness, a little homage to the possibilities that does not end with one or more of us taking advantage of one or more of the others.
There is friendship in this way of helping each other but it doesn’t depend on being friends first. The truth is that this help, if it’s real, if it’s truly not a transaction of some kind, comes from a “best self” or a “higher self” (whatever we might like to call it), the unnameable recognition that self is fundamentally inescapable but also fundamentally an illusion. We are all caught in that net, some days causing us to soar with joy and others to experience a destined amount of hurt and pain. Thinking in this way, to help each other becomes simply a way to make life better for everybody, no matter what other self-centered conditioning we have been given or other mean culture we find ourselves within. We literally don’t have anything better to do than to help each other. It’s our reply to the daily illusions, good and bad, of our selfhood.
Today, at work, with so many threats around us from the larger world (pandemic, abuse of our natural environment, culture wars, real wars, race/gender reconciliation, deep economic disparities and instability) the need to help each other is larger than ever. And many of us also feel we have already given so much more than we have received. That can be so true, part of our tragedy. We may feel overworked in so many ways and are faced with such deep insecurity, toxicity and ambiguity on so many levels. We yearn for stability and clarity, often simply defined as a place to rest! We get confused where that place might be, what beliefs to inhabit, what actions will bring us back to ourselves. And our gurus claim that what people need is more resilience, to more fully feel their feelings, to source their actions in their values — all too easily interpreted in action as a need to dominate a world that appears to have gone more than a little mad. And that interpretation, too, is madness.
The outcome of so much stress is that we trust each other less and have less energy to help each other — at least that is what the neuroscientists say. So let me just remind us that part of our beauty as human beings is our ability to “think above” where we are; essentially to see through the illusions driving the madness of our times. We can become open to shifting our consciousness beyond past limits — a dream highlighted globally on the early internet. What an amazing idea that was in the beginning, a whole species about to shift out of its self-battering and self-exultations, it’s genetic inheritance of competition and self-justifying aggressions. Yup, that was a dream and a vision, alright, but now that shift is less poetry and more like a necessity for survival — lest we blow the whole damn thing up in order to preserve one man’s ego. (I’m actually thinking of several of these men).
How else can we think about this? I remember a client some years ago who had an experience at a workshop I happened to be facilitating. He’d gone outside in the sunlight to sit on a big, sunny rock and meditate about his future. He was fearful that he would soon be fired from his job and he was asking himself the question, what’s next? The intuitive answer came to him quickly: to help other people. Great, he thought, but how? He wandered from the rock into a copse of trees. At his feet he discovered a broken street sign with four letters visible on it: E‑A-S‑Y. Aha! he thought, I’ve found it! How do I help other people? It’s easy!
And the story goes on — the next morning on the last day of the workshop he turned on the television in his room to find the Dalai Lama sitting for a press conference in Washington, D.C. Someone in the audience asked him, “Dalai Lama, what is the purpose of life?” He replied, “That’s easy. It’s to help other people.” The client was so moved he could hardly tell others at the workshop what had happened, but at that moment he stopped worrying about the future.
This is a true story and I have to say, every time I recite it to myself (or anybody else) I get verklempt, too, which I take to be a sign of exactly where the damage is.
For anybody at all.