In the individualism of much of western and westernising society we can get ourselves into all sorts of knots about our attitude towards the wellbeing of others. In an age when community is in retreat in the mega-cities of today, it can seem as if it is “every man for himself”, “me first”. Yet by contrast we expect a lot of others: witness the current expectation for getting good customer service. However it can be less easy for us to think of others and to put ourselves out for them. And when we do, do we do this our of genuine altruism, or is it really about a referral back to us ourselves and what we might get from the exchange?
One trend in the current Great Recession that has been very evident has been the increase in numbers who regard poverty as someone’s “fault” and that it is seen as a circumstance of their own making. Thus there is wide support for cutting “welfare” payments. This sort of swing is fairly typical of economic downturns, rather in line with a broader tendency to blame others (eg. bankers), find scapegoats (eg immigrants), become more insular (eg. in the UK, anti-Europeanism), and adopt a “pull up the drawbridge” seige mentality, to adopt an appropriately medieval military term. So, in terms of our concern for others, this might seem to be in retreat.
Yet, almost in the same breath, we might see all sorts of excitement and anger at perceived threats to human rights. In Turkey right now, there’s major unrest about this aspect of public life.
It’s hard to have it both ways, to expect things from others to ensure our continued wellbeing and yet to strguggle to give to others. As a coach and personal development specialist, I frequently come across the issues people have with their awareness of others, and in particular empathy. It’s a real blind spot for very many people, the ability to see another’s perspective, to put oneself almost in another person’s shoes. Daniel Goleman considers social awareness to be one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence, our ability to be aware of and appropriately use our emotions in the conduct of our lives and in our relationships. I do find empathy can be taught, that people become more effective in being socially aware and responding appropriately. There is a whole school of thought that people are not born with social awareness but need to be taught, for example, to be considerate of others.
One area in which this whole area can be most striking is the notion of service. As I have written elsewhere, service has strongly negative associations in today’s society, being linked with servants and an old social order now long past. We expect it of others, but we don’t find it so easy to give it. Yet, as a powerful tool in becoming more ego-less, service is extremely useful. Service from this perspective is about doing for others unconditionally, without any expectation of a reward, self-lessly. We put our own ego on one side and we be there for others. It is the ego that objects to this: “What about me and my needs?”, it complains. It is not uncommon for those helping for example on personal development retreats to find their egos being challenged in this way and what comes up is highly significant for their growth. One example might be that one person’s ego might actually be concerned about not getting attention for themselves, of feeling too much in pain themselves to be able to serve others unconditionally.
The notion of being there for others challenges us to look at what goes on for us ourselves. What do we need to attend to in us that we’re denying support for others? What deficiency is there that we need to attend to? This whole matter brings us face to face with how the ego, the limited or illusory self, is such a deadly force in today’s human make-up, as people like Eckhart Tolle, Steve Taylor, and others have argued. Inability to deal with and more on from personal suffering and know more of who we really are is a major stumbling block not just personally but in relationships and in how whole groups and nations deal with one another. When we make this paradigm shift, another’s pain becomes our pain too, to deal with and move on from our own stuff automatically invites us to extend this to others, since they are a part of us.
I run a program to help people rise above ego and know more of who they really are. Click here