Virtually every young person I encounter has the same two answers when asked the question, What do you want to do with your life?” The first is, “Well, I don’t really know.” And the second is, “…but I want to do something to help people.”
Whenever we help another person, either through benefit of our knowledge and skills or guiding the development of their critical values, we are impacting their life. This can be in ways both subtle and major.
Today we’re going to begin a 3-part series on the topic “Am I Making a Difference?” And in this first part, I’ll address the fundamental components that form the basis of that question. We’ll then outline five proven techniques for difference-making that anyone can begin to use immediately.
There are many ways we can make a difference in this world as we work to understand and interact with other human beings. And I hope it goes without saying that our goal is to make a positive difference, rather than a negative!
As stated in my introduction, many people profess wanting to make a difference. Yet, all too often they think it requires large amounts of money, power, or influence to be effective. And thus, their feelings of inadequacy overpower their desire, and consequently no attempt is ever made!
Others (hopefully a minority of those reading or listening to this post) may question why we should even care about others anyway! Shouldn’t we just concentrate on helping ourselves?
So just in case, let’s begin by tackling this first question head-on, Why should I even care?
Why Should I Even Care?
You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget that errand. – President Woodrow Wilson
Throughout the ages, a popular topic of philosophical debate has been (and continues to be) the range of unique attitudes and behaviors that we as humans possess.
Are we inherently good? Or, are we inherently evil? (And, BTW, what actually is good and evil?)
Why are even very young children appalled at the site of older boys abusing a puppy; or even a caterpillar? From where does that regard for another living being come? And, what is the origin for our sense of social injustice when the rights of that other living being are compromised?
Much has been written on these subjects (I’ve written on them myself), but a comprehensive history of moral development is not the subject of this particular post.
Suffice it to say, I think most would agree we all were born with an innate sense of caring. Caring for life in general. This is what Albert Schweitzer termed a universal “Reverence for Life”.
We can trace this human characteristic back to antiquity as a central tenet in the extreme of the Jain religion practiced in India for nearly 3,000 years!
This caring what happens to others is inherent in the teachings of the Ethic of Reciprocity; what the Christian Bible refers to as The Golden Rule.
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. – Luke Chapter 6 Verse 31
Wanting to “make a difference” is a worthy desire because it takes this Ethic of Reciprocity one step further. Not only should we treat others as we would ourselves be treated, but we have the ability to add value to the life of another person (or any other living being).
Making a difference happens when we share our special skills, knowledge, and experience with those who lack those skills, knowledge, and experience. This includes doing something for someone else that they cannot do for themselves. However, in a moment I’m going to show you some effective ways that require even less than that!
In all helping, the most noble expression of this human trait is when we do so with no thought of profit for ourselves. That is, when we have nothing to gain by their success other than the knowledge that we were able to help. When even one person is kind, these effects ripple throughout all of humanity.
And make no mistake; knowing this in itself is its own reward!
How Can I Make a Difference?
While it’s easy to think that making a difference requires having a great deal of extra time or money, nothing could be further from the truth!
Time and money certainly are great assets to have, however there are many other methods we all can use. Below is just a short list to start you thinking:
Method 1. Give freely of your smiles
Perhaps the simplest and most powerful way to make a difference is to smile at another human being! In many cases, even when no words are exchanged, that simple gesture – which takes virtually no effort on our part – may be their only pleasant memory of that day.
In almost every culture of the world, the human smile is recognized as a sign of connection.
Without need of any verbal language, this one facial expression effectively conveys your thoughts of:
- Solidarity – I’m in the same situation as you
- Support – I’m here for you
- Anticipation of good things to come
- And many other positive meanings defined only by the circumstances of the two people involved
Method 2. Speak words of kindness
Mother Teresa, the small Albanian nun who made a significant difference in the lives (and deaths) of many in India, is often quoted as saying,
Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless! – Mother Teresa
This is another great example of something that takes so little effort on our part, yet can have a profound effect on people around us.
We do well to remember that everyone in life is fighting a battle to survive, including you and me. Sometimes that battle is visible on the outside; yet more often than not, it is a hidden battle raging deep inside us. Pausing in our own daily struggle to offer a kind word to someone else is like offering water to a man wandering in a desert.
The good news is that our canteen of words is always full, if only we remember to share it with others.
Method 3. Be the first to help
Here is where your unique knowledge, skills, and experience can be of benefit to others.
Just this week I received an anxious phone call from a long-time friend who has been working with a colony of stray cats at her university; trapping, neutering, and returning them to their habitat.
Earlier that evening while feeding one of these cats within its surgical recovery cage, she noticed her 6 y/o grandchild putting her hand into the cage. The frightened occupant nipped the child’s finger with a fang breaking the skin and drawing blood. Since the history of this outdoor cat was not really known, the incident rightly raised the concern of a potential exposure to rabies.
My friend, who is a Humanities Professor and not well-versed in rabies, immediately thought of me, a Pathogenic Virologist by profession, and phoned. For the next 30 minutes I helped her evaluate the risks in this particular situation and recommended appropriate follow-up action. I also took the time to explain to both her and her daughter the mechanisms of how rabies virus infects muscle and neural cells which is the basis for our post-exposure prophylaxis therapy.
Although my friend had access to local medical professionals, in this particular situation she turned to me first as someone who would both understand her concerns and provide appropriate guidance on how to proceed.
I was pleased to be the first to help.
Everyone possesses specialized knowledge, skills, and experience that can be used in similar fashion to help others, without the necessity of billing by the hour for that occasional help.
Method 4. Look for opportunities
Regrettably, most people plod through life giving hardly a thought to the fellow sitting next to him or standing together in the elevator. Yet here are opportunities all around us for making a difference in the life of someone else.
Holding a door for someone carrying multiple packages; yielding a parking place to another harried driver; saying a kind word to a stranger who looks like they’re having a really bad day. Showing kindness to someone else is a way to give that person something to remember.
And, your actions may just encourage them to do likewise for someone else starting a viral spreading effect – what business philosopher Seth Godin refers to as “sneezers”. (Remember, how do you spread an infection? Person to person!) It’s impossible to know the full extent of the effects we have on others. More reason to be careful that our actions are always of a positive nature.
Bottom line – think creatively and opportunities will suddenly become visible everywhere!
Method 5. Become an encourager
John Maxwell writes in his book referenced at the end of this post, Encouragement is oxygen to the soul!
It’s a part of being human that we all experience periods of frustration and failure, and at these times it’s easy to think that we ourselves are the failure. It’s then that we most need to hear words of encouragement from others, as well as from ourselves.
Like Mother Teresa’s quote above regarding kindness, it takes little on our part to speak words of encouragement yet the effect is long-lasting. What might seem trivial to us may be just what the other person needs to hear at that moment in time.
Believe in people and let them know it.
And then allow them to borrow your belief!
By speaking words of life, new life (and renewed effort) will result. Like giving them a breath of pure oxygen, it will make a difference.
Can I Really Make a Difference?
In my teaching, I often make the point that each of our lives is like a still pond into which others are constantly tossing pebbles. While those pebbles immediately sink below the surface and may consciously be forgotten, our subconscious mind creates a concentric circle of ripples that move outward until they reach every shore of our being.
What that means is that even the smallest incident has permanent consequences in our life, even though it may take months or even decades for that ripple to become apparent (reach the shore). It further provides the proof that even small gestures, honestly given, can have significant and long-lasting consequences.
Once we realize and accept this, it becomes clear that all the techniques we discussed above do indeed have the ability to make a difference in people’s lives.
I sincerely believe that we as humans are “hard-wired” from birth to be mindful of how we treat all living beings. Cruelty to others is an aberration that most cultures inherently condemn, just as Ethical Reciprocity is the norm that most cultures embrace.
Charles Darwin has written on this subject considering cooperation through kindness an important tool in the genetics of Natural Selection. That is, where kindness helping each other is a trait that actually has had an evolutionary benefit to the survival and expansion of our species.
One might say there is even a feed-back loop in play. When we do something positive to make a difference in the life of a fellow human being – or animal – we receive a sense of satisfaction. Somewhere from deep within us we just know we’ve done the right thing!
This perhaps is what keeps many of us going in animal rescue in the face of such overwhelming cruelty.
The desire that most people have to make a difference in the life of another person is something that should be nurtured and modeled. Today I’ve given you several ways that we might do so, regardless of our lack of money or time. With these as a guide, I would encourage you to begin creating your own ways of making a difference.
Then share your methods with us in the comment section below.
Be thinking of the people in your life as you read the words below by John Maxwell.
John Maxwell – Winning with People
Conari Press – Random Acts of Kindness
John Maxwell – Encouragement Changes Everything
Our images today are from 123rf.com
In Part 2 of this three-part series, I discuss how elevating our goals to a grander scale, it's possible to have a lasting impact on hundreds if not thousands of people throughout succeeding generations.
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