"We can be helpful; and if we're helpful then we'll probably do a good job."
This is a major change in worldview for me.
I always want to be good: the funniest, the cleverest, the most charming, the most fascinating. And of course, all of that is wrapped up in ego. Ultimately my measure of what is "good" is tied to how much it reflects well on me. I rarely think of what it might mean for other people.
But by considering the world in terms of helpfulness, and more specifically how helpful we can be to others, we can gradually shift our self-referential focus. It also lifts the burden of perfectionism from our shoulders. What we do ceases to become a reflection of us and our insecurities, and becomes instead an effort to lighten someone else's burden.
Now, it's taken me 40 or so years to grapple with this problem of selfishness. I have been blessed in my life to know people who have always had this ultimate goal of helpfulness (my wonderful partner being one of them) but, though I could see it's benefits, I was too mired in self-obsession to really be able to put it into practise.
So I'm trying to be helpful. It seems such a little thing, but actually it is difficult, and each day I have to argue with that devil on my shoulder urging me to go back to trying to be "good." I am trying to stop performing goodness and actually start living it. Here are some of the ways this struggle manifests itself in my life:
- Is what I'm saying helpful? Moaning, complaining, bitching and gossiping, while enormous fun, are ultimately not helpful modes of communication. I struggle with not broadcasting my ill health, my lack of time or my irritation at people and things. Am I really improving someone's day by indulging in a five minute monologue on the woes of public transport in Sydney or the unpredictability of my bowels/brain/respiratory system? And one of the really big unhelpful utterances I have to watch is "I'm so busy." This is painful and I am always irritated when I hear someone else say it. And yet I catch myself saying it several times a week. Actually, I am not busy. I am just disorganised and lazy. But that is not your fault, and lying to you about the structure of my life is not helpful to you or to me.
- Is what I'm broadcasting on social media helpful? This is an increasingly important consideration for me. I have a reasonable following on social media, and occasionally I am surprised by the extent to which people take notice of and remember what I say on Twitter, Facebook or in my blogs. Again, I could use these spaces to bitch and moan (and I do), to tear down someone's reputation or express my irritability. I could become that most loathed creature, the troll, full of self-importance and self-delusion, dashing off stinging comments and emails as the mood takes me. I could upset people and provoke a reaction. But by no moral or spiritual measure can such behavour be justified or labelled as helpful. It doesn't make me feel better, it brings other people down and ultimately makes them think that I am a bit of a dickhead.
- Is what I'm eating helpful? It's no secret that I am a fat person. And while I despise this society's focus on fatness and the continued demonisation of large bodies, I still need to come to terms with my own health and fitness. I will never be skinny. I will probably never even be a "normal" weight. Bigness is my particular karma, but I can consider carefully what I eat. Not beating myself up over a hugely enjoyable donut with a friend. But simply asking: "Is what I am about to put in my mouth helpful to my health, my digestion and my wellbeing?" This keeps me honest.
- Is what I am watching helpful? I am by nature drawn to the scandalous, the extreme and the sensual. I am a Scorpio and my nature is particularly (though perhaps secretly) Scorpionic. I love extremes of emotion and experience. I love the dangerous, the forbidden and the outlandish. This tendency is, of course, part of what makes me such a fascinating and fun person. But I must balance my consumption of culture, images and literature. Murder, mayhem and raunch all have their fictional and fantastic place. But binging on these things, making of them an exclusive cultural diet, is not helpful. Reading twelve Scandinavian crime novels in a row or watching The Human Centipede Two might be easy to do, but after it all I am not a better person. I have not been raised up in any sense. I am not being a prude here - watch and read what you like. But be honest about its impact on you, and about how much time it is taking out of your life.
Michael Port is an author and motivational speaker who has written two bestselling books: Book Yourself Solid and The Think Big Manifesto. His website is here
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