On Helping Each Other

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?

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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.

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4 Comments

  • Eric Renz-Whitmore wrote:

    Good piece. I do fear that the world has got­ten a bit mean­er in recent years, and that more peo­ple have felt they need to close them­selves off; to pro­tect them­selves (and that that’s been true).
    All the more rea­son for those with a lit­tle more ener­gy or capac­i­ty to be just a lit­tle more kind, a lit­tle more self­less, a lit­tle more con­cerned about the team or com­mu­ni­ty — or what­ev­er. Per­son­al­ly, I know that when I feel more closed off myself, I can some­times find the grit and ener­gy to be that best self — and that if I do, I’m often reward­ed. Even if it’s just part of being in a hap­pi­er place.

  • Eric –

    Thank you so much for stop­ping by. I agree with you on all counts: the world has got­ten a bit mean­er in recent years — AND that is impe­tus to do a lit­tle more for the sake of com­mu­ni­ty, even if it’s just to be part of a hap­pi­er place. We can make it bet­ter. The giv­ing and receiv­ing of help reminds us we all have a role to play in the health of the human spirit.

    Best to you–
    Dan

  • A beau­ti­ful post, thanks Dan.

  • Thank you so much, David!

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