Finding the Balance or Managing the Feel-Good Meter
On one of my trips out of town, I was overcome with the feeling that helping others is what life’s all about. In big ways. In small ways. Offering to give a hand to a friend whom you know is struggling. Tipping the person who prepares your coffee. Helping a confused person find their way. Being friendly to strangers when you’re out running your errands. Being helpful whenever you can. Meeting a person’s eye and smiling. Or just holding their gaze for a moment so they know they have been seen. There are a thousand ways big and small to help other people.
Thinking about things like gratitude practices, I wanted to promote the practice of kindness and helping others. Whether it’s doing something practical like helping someone get something done or doing something that lifts a person’s spirits, spreading helpfulness is one of the most powerful spiritual practices we can do.
Giving doesn’t only make the other person feel good but it makes your own heart feel good.
I went to Portland a few months ago for a writing retreat and every place I went I encountered helpful, friendly people who made me feel good to be alive and happy about humanity. I met many strangers who were extremely kind to me and helped me with directions, when I was walking through the city, because I’m terrible at finding my way in new places. I’m famous among my friends for getting lost or taking the wrong turn. They took the time to explain to me where things were, and how the city was laid out (numerically and alphabetically) so I could figure out how to find the address I was looking for.
The women at the writing workshop shared their fears and vulnerabilities in words and tears and exquisite pieces of writing that made me feel less alone and not so different. I went to this writing retreat hoping to become a better writer but really, what it did was open my heart. I saw so many ways that people were doing what they could to help other people. The presenters gave us all books from writers they knew, whom they were supporting by sharing their books. They said they take a percentage of what they bring in from the workshop to help upcoming writers. A beautiful practice of Helping.
At the hostel-like Society Hotel, where I was staying, the staff were very friendly and chatty. They greeted me with smiles every time I entered the lobby/lounge/café area. They had a little take-out bar where they made healthy breakfasts and lunches and they remembered each day that I wanted yogurt with their homemade granola and a fresh orange for breakfast.
The people at the front desk were patient in explaining how to find places in town and how to navigate the neighborhood. And in order to get a good night’s sleep they gave me a quiet room on a top floor away from the street noise.
I was so overcome by the openness and friendliness of the people I was meeting in this city, where I arrived alone, discovering the fresh, artistic nature of Portland. My heart was blasted open.
On the flight home, as I reflected on my four-day excursion I thought about how delightful it was to go to a place where the people were so forthcoming and inviting. Life is all about helping each other and being good to one another, I decided.
But then I had another thought. Being an open, giving person is all very well, but we need to take care of ourselves, too. We need to have a balance between giving and receiving. When we talk about balance between giving and receiving, how much is too much?
One of the reasons we are here – or if I want to get all pompous about it – one of the meanings of life, is to find the balance between helping others and taking care of ourselves. When people go too far to the extreme in either direction, devastating things can happen.
When taking care of oneself obliterates everything else it turns to greed, which can become meanness or even war, at the extreme level. And giving too much of oneself, without taking time to recharge, can result in a state of severe depletion, or become an addiction to being needed at its worst.
Finding that balance between helping others and helping oneself is a tricky dance. Like any balancing act it is easy to tip to one side or the other. It feels so good to do something for someone else where you can immediately see that your action is making a difference. It also feels good to unplug, slow down, and indulge in some self-care. When tackling anything big, the best thing to do is take small bites. Go back and forth. Find the comfort zone between manageable acts of kindness and bite sized treats of self-care.