Category Archives: Psychology and Philosophy

The Dark Side of Service to Others (Part 1)

Helping others is generally a good thing, but depending on the situation can be a bad thing for one or both parties involved. It can be a bad thing when it robs the other person of an opportunity for personal growth. For example, answering a question or telling a person how to do something can rob them of the opportunity to discover and learn themselves, or can reinforce them in a pattern of getting others to do their work for them.

For this post, I will define the dark side of service to others as actions of sacrifice for others that are worse than doing nothing. These are things that harm both parties (lose-lose situations), or things that benefit one party but come at an overly high cost to the other party (wasted potential).

An archetypical lose-lose act of service is giving money to a beggar who is an alcoholic or drug addict. It is a lose-lose situation because the giver has forfeited the opportunity to use the money for something else, and the receiver would be better off not having the money at all, given his or her addiction. The stereotypical solution to the situation is to offer the beggar food instead of money, to which the beggar will often decline.

While the above situation is well known, I want this post to be a starting point for evaluating acts of service you give or receive that are actually holding you back. Many of these services do not have to be abandoned, but can be modified to be beneficial to both parties. Others need to be discarded, because they cannot be reformed given their parameters. While choosing how to serve is a subjective, personal choice, there are some objective guidelines we can apply to judge others’ acts of service as being useful or useless.

There are a few other easy examples I will eliminate before proceeding to grayer areas. Service to strangers and fair-weather friends can be dark if it is pursued over service to family and close friends. Helping people who do not appreciate your help or chronically complain is ill-advised. Acts of service that are useful to others but take up too much of your time and energy may waste potential. Service that is done for narcissistic reasons may be a net loss.

Often, an act of service can be good or bad depending on how it is carried out. Helping a friend with math homework or an essay can easily be good or bad, depending on whether you are helping him or her think critically, or simply doing the work for him or her. This is similar to the parable about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish. There are several reasons why giving the fish (or answers) may seem more appealing. One is that it is easier and takes less time. Another is it fosters dependence on the helper, which can make him or her feel needed and useful. A third reason is the receiver may request or demand it, because he or she refuses or claims to be unable to learn how to fish. All of these reasons can encourage helplessness and discourage self-actualization. A far more useful tutor is one who facilitates the learning process, rather than eliminating it.

Service that is done with expectations, reservations, or resentment is poisoned from the start. If there are expectations, they should be outwardly articulated. It is not productive to volunteer to help someone, expect to be compensated, receive nothing, and then feel resent for not receiving something you specifically asked not to receive. Conversely, while you may feel pressure from your sense of conscientiousness, the person who has volunteered to help you should not pressure you to help him or her in return. If anything, the helper should encourage you to pay it forward by helping someone else, which can go on to create a chain of service and goodwill. While the first person in such a chain gives without receiving, he or she arguably benefits the most, if you subscribe to the belief that it is better to give than receive.

Service to others has a real opportunity cost. You could be using such time, money, mental, and physical effort to work on your own interests, or to develop your talents and goals. If the service you are providing is not helping you to grow, any surplus may be nullified, because the meager benefit to the recipient may pale in comparison to the losses you incur. Time is precious, and time now is more valuable than time in the future, because the degrees of freedom available to you inevitably decline as years pass by. If mastery of a subject or discipline takes 10 years, how many 10-year periods do you have left? Are you using your years to develop your talents or to serve as a butler for others?

Certainly, teaching is the best way to learn. Thus, service to others is a powerful tool for realizing your own potential. However, if such service is mundane, has no teaching opportunities, and does not come close to employing your full ability, you may be better off not doing it, particularly if you have more pressing interests to pursue.

In part 2, I will talk more about situations where serving others is undesirable. There is also the possibility that I will not write part 2 at all. Regardless, there is a lot more I could write about this.

Musings

The hardest part about writing is staring at a blank screen and knowing you have something to say, but not how to get started. It’s far easier to read other peoples blogs or Facebook posts than to share your own voice. It’s also easy to judge other writers as simple or juvenile, without realizing that their writing isn’t meant for your benefit, but for theirs.

In a typical classroom, the focus is on the students, who greatly outnumber the teacher, and it is assumed the teacher is there for their benefit. However, the collective benefit to the students may be greatly outweighed by the singular benefit to the teacher. While most students forget most of what they’ve learned as soon as they write the required paper or take the required exam, the teacher is learning by teaching, not only by ingraining the material, but also by becoming a more experienced leader and communicator.

While people are equal in the eyes of the Lord, in a particular field or for a particular purpose the worth of one can outweigh the worth of millions. That is not to say the work of the millions is worthless, but perhaps that its greatest worth is simply for the enrichment and personal development of those individuals. For example, my skills at taking pictures or playing the piano may not be particularly impressive to anyone else, but they provide meaning to my life and occupy my time. While I make no money from them, I would not give them up for the world, because I enjoy them.

For people who are striving to make names from themselves, to create great works of art and to gain fortune and fame, it may be apt for many of them to realize their times have past. It is simply a mathematical improbability that they have enough time, talent, or motivation left to fulfill these dreams within themselves. Their focus must be on the next generation, for their strength and diligence would be better exercised in facilitating their children than facilitating themselves.

The perceived beliefs and actions of others are a powerful motivator. It’s very common to believe that you must perform work you do not enjoy to earn a living, because enjoyable work does not deserve pay and what you like to do isn’t practical or salable. If you simply replace this belief with the belief that many other people are getting what they want out of life, making opportunities as they see fit, and profiting abundantly while pursuing their passion, you will be driven to do the same. If you are an unhappy janitor, believing that “somebody has to do it” may provide you with consolation, but you could just as well be withholding a job from someone who actually enjoys janitorial work, which is a lose-lose situation. The United States is a free country, and just because certain work “must be done” doesn’t mean you have any responsibility or obligation to do it.

The passage of time can be called the great equalizer. Every creature and plant in this world, no matter how beautiful, will eventually return to dust. Every day I live will be forgotten, and everything I create will inevitably be destroyed. Why then should I be worried about what others think? In truth, other people usually give us far less consideration than we believe. The few that callously insult us, or emptily praise us, are really just projecting feelings about aspects of their lives onto our persona. They can safely be ignored.

Sporadic, concentrated periods of productive creativity often fall short of regular, disciplined work. Like shooting stars, creative episodes are bright and bold, but quickly fade away, leaving behind unfinished projects, forgotten paradigms, and nuggets of divinity which cannot be appreciated without context. Building a history of diligent work may produce far greater accomplishments in the long run, and there is no better time to start than now.

I have had the pleasure of falling in love with a beautiful and intelligent woman, who is a continent away. We are engaged to be married and I am moving to California in the summer of 2014 (after completing my B.S. in Psychology), since she cannot move to Florida. There is no greater joy than being reunited after months of phone calls and video chats, nor greater pain than being separated again. I feel so uncertain about moving so far away—I have so much of my family here, my possessions, my job, my home. I don’t want to work so many hours per day to support a family that I do not get to see them, but only secondary jobs may be available to me with so little experience and with such a common degree. But I also am incredibly happy and optimistic. I have never before found anyone who loves me like her, nor can I imagine any future where we are not in love.

How will our future play out? The habits and beliefs we exercise now are integral. How many could benefit by replacing idleness and passive leisure with active reading and fearless expression? Perhaps we are building skills, but not in the directions we want to go. Without clearly determining our direction at a young age, we may wind up without the expertise or means to accomplish our goals within this lifetime. However, the course we set in young age may not be the one that suits us in middle or old age. But as long as we keep moving, we will have a legacy to look back upon.