I want to leave my footprints on the sand of time,
Know there was something that, something that I left behind,
When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets,
Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget,
I was here, I lived, I loved, I was here.
The lyrics of Beyonce song, ‘I was here’, ring true every time it plays. Celebrating the power of the human spirit to leave a mark on this world. Inspiring as it is, we often forget or doubt in our power and ability to make that change in society. Who can look for volunteering opportunities, when life gets busy? Our almost super-power gets rusted in the foggy busy-ness of simply being.
Why is that important, today and to this piece? For a brief moment, going back a little in time:
It was right in the middle of a long school day, that seemed to stretch on forever. We were important-looking ninth graders, staying our hardest to look like we were paying attention. Our English teacher obviously knew better. Suddenly, she snapped her book shut and sat on her desk. “Once you leave school, the years will simply fly,” she said. She understood our impatience to pass the tenth grade, leave school, and bask in the open glory of college life. Perhaps, she also understood our naivety and knew we would not understand that statement she just made. Yet, like the echoes across a long dusty corridor, those words come back to me, again and again.
These words represent the passage of time, and life itself. A fast passing life, which we take for granted. When I look back, I wonder sometimes: how does time manage to compress itself?
It is this sense of ‘flying’ time that makes it all the more urgent: the need to carve some time for voluntary work and imbibing the virtue of giving back. I found myself wondering – Why is altruism important when the basics in life need to be ticked off? There is a career to think of, immense competition to leave behind, a soul mate to be found (and nurtured, if already booked), and a family to start. “I’ll do it later, when things are settled and done with,” – a common and human logic. Where’s the time to be humane? I thought about this, discussed this with people, did some research. So here we go.
Presenting the case to…
* The perennially busy voice: “I don’t have the time”
You don’t have to carve out huge chunks of time to do good. Even a little time, a small gesture will go a long way. We are endowed with more energy than we can imagine. The excess energy needs a release, an outlet to stave off laziness, depression, and distractions. Whether it’s an hour of voluntary work every week or even once a month, it might come as a surprise how small gestures can add up to a person’s day.
You could examine your work and look for ways in which it supports a common good. Emma Seppala, Science Director, Stanford Center For Compassion And Altruism Research And Education, suggests: “If you really can’t find a purpose in your job, you can think about how your work allows you to support your family. Or you can think of every day as an opportunity to support your co-workers.”
* The permanently sceptical mind: “Will this one act of kindness make a difference?”
Just try it. You will know the difference that one act makes to you as well as to the recipient. And the best part is that kindness is contagious.
A study conducted by The Cambridge University, the University of Plymouth, and the University of California found something fascinating: seeing someone else help another person produced good feelings, which subsequently caused them to reach out and do something altruistic themselves.
A British Red Cross-commissioned survey showed that 94 percent of people agreed that being kind encourages others to pay it forward. Half of the survey group said they felt cared for when someone was kind to them. (Now, do you want to pay for someone’s meal today!)
* The perpetually scared one: “I can’t see any kind of suffering, I’m not that strong.”
It is a well-documented fact that altruism boosts one’s wellness. It gives one a sense of happiness, a sense of purpose, and confidence. In fact, Seppala says: “The best-kept secret to happiness is to be of service to others.”
Altruistic acts shift the focus from ‘I’ and ‘me’ to ‘them’, giving us a broader perspective beyond ourselves. It increases social connections (which in turn strengthens our immune system), leads to lower rates of depression and anxiety, and increases longevity.
What’s the right altruistic attitude?
The idea of voluntary service is to be like God / universal consciousness / the one principle which is kind, unconditional and giving. It is said that the word service comes from the Sanskrit root, seva – to be like Him.
You’ll find your own style and flavor, but here are a few universal nuggets:
- Give without expecting. Ask yourself: Even if I don’t receive a thanks in return, am I willing to do this?
- Be natural, nobody is going to judge you.
- Voluntary service is an expression of joy, not an ask for joy. Serve because you are happy, and if the by-product is more happiness, so be it.
- Service is not a competition with others, or even with yourself.
- Look for volunteering opportunities that resonate with your passion, if possible. Do you feel strongly for the environment? Or passionately want to help children’s education?
- Strengthen altruism with prayer, meditation, and love. Practices that nurture you will give your inner strength, more dispassionate to tackle some harsh realities, and energize the optimist in you.
- Regular time spent in altruistic acts makes you realize it’s a part of who you are. And this realization paves the ways for unconscious altruism.
Go on. Appreciate the good in the world, and pursue the beauty of a future that will be.
Based on Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s wisdom and inputs from Dr. Prema Seshadri, Faculty, The Art of Living.
First published on The Art of Living website