Like many of us of a certain age, I remember President John F. Kennedy’s famous words that he spoke in his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Over the years, I’ve found that this advice doesn’t just apply to one’s country but has applicability to many areas of life, and in particular, that of relationships. Yet while most of us would probably agree that embodying this philosophy in our daily lives is likely to enhance the quality of our relationships, actually doing so isn’t necessarily easy. Approaching life experiences from the question “What is it that I have to offer this person or situation?” rather than “What’s in it for me here and how can I get it?” is easier said than done.
It seems natural to be more concerned with our own needs and desires, rather than those of others. Yet, paradoxically, as many of us have learned, living life from an intention to give rather than to get is more likely to provoke feelings of fulfillment than doing the opposite. The attitude that we adopt and live from in our life may be the single-most important factor in determining the quality of our life experience. While it may seem counter-intuitive to choose to be more concerned with others’ needs than our own, doing so not only makes us more attractive to others and draws them into our sphere of influence.
This is not to say that obsessively focusing on others to the exclusion of our own needs is always a good thing to do. As many of us have learned, taking responsibility for others and ignoring our own needs creates another set of problems and not only promotes co-dependent patterns, but also inevitably generates resentment and codependence in relationships. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.
Some of us are born with a predisposition towards giving, some develop it in the process of maturing. Some never do. Anyone can, at any age, can engage in practices that strengthen the quality of “generosity of spirit”. As this practice becomes more integrated into the fabric of our lives, the motivation to continue becomes stronger as it produces increasingly rewarding results. Our friend Bill Galt knows this from a lifetime of practicing this form of “enlightened self-interest. Here’s what he has to say about it:
“I’ve always known, even as a kid, that I was happiest when I was giving. Not just giving support, although I do enjoy doing that, but sharing ideas, offering comfort or giving from the heart as well as the wallet. I love being engaged in real conversations, and I spend a lot of time on the phone having them. I don’t do superficial very well, and I’ve found that when I get real, people almost always join me at that level.”
“My friends and family all know that they can always turn to me if they need any kind of help. It brings me pleasure to assist them in any way that I can. I’m always looking for ways in which I can serve. When my wife Gail and I lived in Baja California, we had a big hurricane that caused a lot of damage. After the hurricane, Gail and I got to work in the neighborhood and we had a blast! We put a roof on one person’s house and a door on another’s. Wherever we go, there are projects that call out to us to join in. In Baja, there was a huge overpopulation problem of beach dogs. We started up a “spay and neuter your pet program.” The local women were supportive of the idea, but their husbands weren’t, so Gail would wait until the men left for work and then go door to door to speak to the women. It seemed a little sneaky, but it worked! We brought in veterinarians from out of town, and by the time we left Baja, we had spayed and neutered several hundred animals!”
“Money has never been a major preoccupation with me. I’ve always trusted that here will be enough and there usually is. There was a time, many years ago, that money was pretty scarce with us and we didn’t have enough to pay our rent. If we didn’t come up with $500, we were at risk of getting evicted. After several days of frantically running around trying to hustle up the money, I finally scraped it. But before I could pay it, a friend came over who was in even more dire circumstances than I was, and after hearing his heart-wrenching story, I gave him the entire $500!”
“My wife pitched a fit! She was screaming at me that we might lose our house and there wouldn’t be a roof over our children’s heads. I thought she was so angry, that I thought she might actually divorce me, but I knew that it was the right thing to do. In less than a week, I had gathered together even more that the $500 that we needed to pay the rent”
I have had enough incidents like this one, although usually less dramatic, to feel absolutely confident that things will always work out and that I don’t have to stress out about things. When I look around me, I see so many people grasping and consuming. All this excessive materialism amplifies peoples’ fears and dissatisfaction. Professional marketers seem to know how to exploit inflame our desires and anxieties.”
“Gail and I have realized a degree of material success that allows us to see how hollow the relentless accumulation of money is. There is a big difference between needs and desires. We have learned to become very clear about this distinction and that makes it a lot easier to loosen our attachment things are non-essentials and focus our energies and attention on those things that really matter. We make sure that we only consume that which is aligned with our life vision, which is to serve society and the world. When we stay true to that mission, we enjoy long-term satisfaction. And it’s that sense of deep satisfaction and of having enough and being enough that allows us to continue to share all that we have. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle. I guess you could call it a cycle of love.”
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