Helping Others First

What do these things have in common?

  • A study with toddler-aged children observing that they quickly came to the aid of adults who dropped a piece of paper on the floor
  • Company cultures that put customer service over profit, or who have lax return policies that some may take advantage of
  • A pack of wolves that allows the cub-bearing female to eat first, giving her the best organs and nutrition
  • “It is better to give than to receive.”

Answer? They all demonstrate that helping each other is hard-wired into our biology and provides the greatest chances of survival. Altruism is a complicated topic, and some say that the personal benefits of being altruistic are so great that there is actually no such thing as selflessly serving others. But does that even matter? As long as a person in need is being served, does it matter if it benefits the person providing the service as well? Much ink has been spilled exploring these questions. 

In my personal world, some of the greatest emotional highs have come from helping others - to the point that it hurt a little bit. I know some of my fondest memories with my father was him throwing me into uncomfortable situations, like stopping to help someone with a car issue or a person that was homeless. He was always helping with a project for a widow or anyone in his circle who couldn’t meet their needs alone. My father made sure we spent our summers in the mountains, and every year I either had a brand new sleeping bag or no sleeping bag and made do with blankets. I never really wondered about why I didn’t just use the same sleeping bag each year. Then, one early winter he asked me to grab that year’s sleeping bags and come with him in the pickup for the afternoon. Having lived with my father, I knew strange adventures were a way of life, so I just rolled with it. He drove me to an underpass, where we found two homeless men. We talked with them, gave them food, and handed over our barely-used sleeping bags. It turned out he had been doing this for years. I remember like it was yesterday - one of the men, unshaven and dirty, had on a pair of huge skiing mittens. I remember he wanted to know what I liked about school. I remember him asking me what my dream car was. Looking back, I know now he could see how uncomfortable I felt. He was making the conversation for me, he wanted to keep me feeling normal. Now I marvel at this. Imagine someone that did not have a roof over their head and did not know where the next meal was coming from going out of their way to help a privileged child feel safe? To stand in such need and desperation and care about someone else first left an impression of true humanity that has stayed with me to this day. I continue to wonder about his life story. Regardless of the challenges he faced, I know he was a good person. 

The holiday season makes this point better than any other time of the year. We love to reflect on giving. We love to watch behind hidden corners when we have given to someone in need, yet we want to remain anonymous. We enjoy and celebrate holidays where giving is the main custom. And when others give to us, we dig deep to express our thanks and gratitude in return. I believe it is because of a hunger for spiritual and emotional food. And like food, putting others first strengthens us, keeps us emotionally fit and healthy, and reminds us of how much we have to be grateful for. Our opportunities and capabilities are different. Some have strong backs for heavy lifting and physical acts of service. Some have money or free time. Some provide emotional support. Sometimes you hit phases of your life where you gave too much, and you need to take time to conserve and protect yourself and your emotional energy. When this is part of your journey, accepting gifts and help from your tribe is just as important - allowing others to feel the rewards of giving may be your act of service for the times when you have nothing else to give. Regardless of what phase you are at in your life, reflecting on service, kindness, and compassion will help you find gratitude and your sense of humanity.

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