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Success vs. Significance Revisited

Posted Mar 09 2009 3:42pm

When the homeless panhandle on the subways of New York City, most people don't look up from their newspaper to acknowledge the request. I try not to do this and will more often than not give spare change, but the reality is that, at times, I am guilty of ignoring them as well. The act of looking a person in the eye, someone who has literally nothing, and saying "I do, in fact, have money in my pocket, but I'm not going to give it to you" is too psychologically threatening to many people. That action says I'm going to let you suffer because I don't want to give away what I have. Our behavior is often rationalized by the idea that the person will simply spend the money on booze or drugs, or that each person is responsible for his fate. That may in fact be true, but there is a strong denial at work here. There's an inherent self-protective shield we have, and we need to believe that things are relatively okay. You only need to pick up a newspaper to see plenty of misery in the world so our psyches are programmed to repress much of this to move on with our lives.

At the first subway stop on the way to the hospital one morning, a Hispanic man came into the car. He was in his 40's, wearing blue-jeans, T-shirt and a baseball hat. There was a satchel hanging from one shoulder. He held what appeared like a thermos in one hand and a sandwich in the other. He looked as though he could pass for a significantly older paperboy. When the doors closed, he started to speak to everyone on the crowded train in a loud, confident voice:

Hello everyone, my name is _____________, and I'm an Outreach Worker for the city. I am giving out food to anyone who needs it and it's absolutely free. I have sandwiches and some donuts.

When people noticed that the man wasn't homeless, many looked up and listened. Maybe it's okay to look if the person isn't filthy?

Our organization is trying to feed as many people as possible but we don't receive much funding. If there is anything you could donate, whether it be food or money, it would be appreciated. Even one penny can help. Please look into your hearts and give if you can.

The man then walked up to a disheveled person and offered him a sandwich.

No one is immune to being homeless. You could lose your job, your home, your family. Anyone, especially today, could be without a penny and have no one. Please know that people need your help and that someday you might need theirs. Please give if you can. Thank you and have a good day.

At that point the man walked around the car to see if anyone would donate. I would say every fourth or fifth person put something into the thermos-like container. I had four quarters in my pocket and I gave it to him. Like he did with everyone else, he smiled and said thank you to me, but you could see that his attention was already focused on moving to the next car. He was definitely energized.

About four hours I got back on the subway to go from the hospital to my private office. Strangely, the same man was on that train as well.

Hello everyone, my name is _____________, and I'm an Outreach Worker.

There was a little less vigor in his voice this time around, however, which I suppose would be suspected if he had spent all morning repeating the same speech. I had $.35 in my pocket and gave it to him. Again he said thank you.

In the early evening I got back on the subway to head downtown to a restaurant with some friends. Sure enough the man was there, in the same car as me, for a 3rd time.

No one is immune to being homeless. You could lose your job, your home, your family.

His voice was hoarse and the satchel was empty, hanging at his side, most of the food gone. Unless I was witness to some elaborate scam to get spare change in exchange for sandwiches, I concluded that the man had spent probably ten hours riding the subway system, handing out food, giving his speech and trying to collect money. Feeling extremely self-conscious that I hadn't worked nearly as hard as he had, I gave him a dollar and asked "how did you do today?"

"Pretty good," he said.

"This seems like a hard job."

"As long as you like talking it's not so bad. It may not look like it but it's pretty rewarding."

"I saw you three times today," I said.

"Sorry, the people start to blur together after awhile. Thanks for donating," he said, and walked away.

Seeing the man reminded me of my talk with Ryan Holiday about "Success vs. Significance." Here's a man who, in all likelihood, dedicated his entire day to improving the quality of life of the poor and hungry. If his full-time job is as an outreach worker, I can't fathom he makes more than $25,000 per year, which is a pittance anywhere near New York City. He personally didn't make a large dent in the plights of the homeless. He'll never get rich doing this. He won't even get to middle-class. He won't ever be famous or garner significant recognition from anyone outside of his organization. And yet his life is significant. His life means something, it's purposeful and isn't about accumulation and consumption.

Can someone have a life of significance and get rich doing it? Of course. Do you have to help the homeless? Absolutely not. Can you enjoy your life and allow yourself to be a happy person? Definitely. But you have to contribute to whatever it is that you believe in, something that benefits more than yourself, to have real meaning in life. Otherwise you become a self-absorbed narcissist who is entrenched in his or her own problems and issues. That's ultimately a recipe for psychological emptiness, something I see virtually every day in the office.

Although I'm sure it comes across as overly simplistic, I encourage most of my clients to engage in behaviors that benefit others. Whether it be a large group or singular person, a family member or complete stranger, is irrelevant. The point is that altruism is, ironically, an antidote for personal pain. The clients who do it tell me it works and when I do it - which, admittedly, is not as often as I should - I notice the same results. Therefore I keep pushing this idea onto them. And now onto you.

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