Four Words to Change Lives

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.  —Ralph Waldo Emerson

I sat in a recent conversation with a friend and listened to him describe some challenges he was facing. For 45 minutes, I simply listened. No interruption. No judgment. No problem solving. No conclusions. Other than an occasional acknowledgment, I was silent. During the course of this live meditation on my friend’s situation, I felt detached. Not in an indifferent way – quite the contrary. I felt detached from any outcomes or self-interest. Other than a sincere desire to be supportive, I had “no dog in this hunt” – nothing to win or lose. No needs to fulfill in reward, influence, perspective, or being “right.” A few times I felt the urge to comment or make a suggestion but I resisted. When a pause eventually came, four words came to mind:

How can I help?

The words themselves were not profound. We use them all the time. As a society, we’re generally pretty helpful to others, though, it often boils down to the easiest form of help: a donation or a bit of time. It is pretty easy to offer to help and the reality is that most people simply want to be heard. However, when we put ourselves squarely and sincerely on the same side of the table as those who may need our help, something profound happens. Change occurs. When we step out of our list of to-do’s, meetings, distractions, and other priorities to make a sincere offer to help, our heart changes. It changes because it is not about us. It changes because we take “self” out of the equation.

I realized as I said the words, that I meant them in a manner beyond lending a few dollars or helping move a piece of furniture. I realized that I was ready to get in the trenches, to roll up my sleeves and get dirty if necessary. My offer had the power of commitment behind it – it said: I want to see you prevail. I want to help you succeed, overcome, win.

I understand, we can’t go there all of the time. After all, it’s a big world with a lot of problems. Whether we live in a large city or little town, we all exist within a smaller community in which we are truly active. We all have a smaller circle that holds our intimates: close friends, family,  and work family. When it comes to our children, the offer is easy, real. (Of course, with our kids, we often don’t ask, we just help whether they want it or not.) Some of us may even be more comfortable helping strangers. That’s ok. The important thing is to realize how to apply this powerful offer in a life changing way.

When we ask “How can I help?” with a sincere heart for the mission in the offer, we transform our self and the person across the table. That person is no longer in it alone. Even if there is no clear action to be taken to help, your offer puts you side-by-side on the path and your mere presence may be all the help that is needed. The issue at hand makes no difference – our struggles are varied: at home, in the office, in the hospital, etc. Your heartfelt presence at their side makes the change.

The final point on these words is the most important. In my story, I mentioned a detachment. A detachment from the outcome of the help you give means no expectations. No expectations for repayment, acknowledgment, or even a particular result. Your offer is solely for the benefit of its recipient. When we make an offer in this spirit and remove “self,” it multiplies in effect. This doesn’t mean that help given with an expectation is a bad thing. These transactions make our world work. However, the selfless offer elevates the person making it and the person to whom it’s offered. Another friend calls this kind of elevation “human flourishing” – moving toward a version of our best self. I think he’s on to something.


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