Be Helpful

Be Helpful

What can I do?

The Practice:
Be helpful.

Why?

I’m doing a series on my personal top five practices (all tied for first place). I have so far named three: meditate (including mindfulness, self-awareness, and, if you like, prayer), take in the good, and bless (including compassion, generosity, and love).

I saw one way to bless on a trip to Haiti in the efforts of many dedicated people: be helpful. As you probably know, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with roughly 80% unemployment. The national government seemed like a tattered sheet in the wind. The public middle and high schools I visited were missing half their schoolbooks as well as the funds for the last two grades. Imagine your own child in such a school . . . and that the $30 it takes to buy the books she needs is a month’s wages, as out of reach as the moon.

Yet in the face of these enormous challenges, I met so many people – both in NGOs and in everyday life – who kept doing whatever they could to help things get better each day. I was humbled by their heart and their efforts. And especially by the joy they could still find even in hard, hard conditions. It reminded me of this story:

Two women are walking along a beach after a storm swept countless starfish up onto the sand, now dying in the sun. As they talk, one reaches down every few paces to pick up a starfish and flick it back into the sea. After a while, her friend points at the miles of beach and bursts out, “Why do you bother?! You’re not making any difference!” Her friend replies, “It makes a big difference to the ones I touch.”

One of the most remarkable things about human beings is that we do bother. Our altruism is unique among vertebrates. An early MRI study on compassion showed that it warmed up the motor circuits of the brain, readying them for action: we don’t just feel the suffering of others; we want to help.

How?

In the words of Nkosi Johnson, a South African boy born with HIV who became an advocate for children with that illness before he died at about age 12: Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.

Do not underestimate the impact of a small deed. Think of a turning point in your own life in which another person did something objectively small – helped you fill out a form, offered an encouraging word, invited you to a meeting, mentioned an opportunity – that had big benefits for you.

In everyday life, look for small concrete physical things that would contribute to others. Empty the dishwasher, give someone a ride, or scratch someone’s back.

Also, look for places where restraint would help, such as not interrupting or not trying to win the argument.

Include inner actions, such as giving full attention instead of letting your mind wander or mobilizing authentic interest in conversation or romance, even if that wasn’t your initial impulse.

Pick a relationship or situation and ask yourself, what could I do to help? Maybe an elderly relative is bored and lonely, or a friend needs a jump-start in clearing out a garage, or a co-parent is carrying too many tasks and too much stress.

And look for leveraged effects, where something small for you is big for someone else. For example, I’ve seen families in which one parent averages 60-70 hours/week on the job (including commute and travel), and dialing back the workweek by 10% increases the parent’s time with the kids by 100%.

As to the larger world, this idea of leveraging brings me back to Haiti – and to the extraordinary staff and work of Plan International, the NGO I support there. It’s just a dollar a day for me – but that’s roughly a day’s wage in many parts of the world. You probably have your own ways of helping, whether at home or abroad, with money or time or other means. We all know that the needs are great.

And so are the opportunities to make a big difference to the ones we touch.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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