There is a deep chasm between genuine and sincere concern for the problems that beset others versus undue personal disturbance. One of the major disaffirmative consequences of an undue concern for others’ problems is that we are not able to focus on fostering our own healthy physical, psychological or spiritual functioning and wellbeing. This is often accompanied by our own emotional distress. Furthermore, this then leads to being ineffective in giving others the help they may deservedly need and that we might want to give to them. Irish author, poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), put it this way: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”1
Sometimes there are situations in which others’ problems do affect us. We may personalize the idea that others are not acting the way we want, taking it as a personal insult or slight. However, as cognitive clinical psychologist, Albert Ellis (1962)2 points out, it is our own “injustice-collecting ideas,” or what I would label as our demanding expectations that we be ‘justly treated,’ that inflates our own feelings of annoyance. For example, if someone acts ill-manneredly towards us, it is our own ‘self talk’ about it that triggers our untoward feelings: “What rudeness he/she has! How dare he/she do that to me.” We insist that others follow our own set of rules. We fail to perceive the reality that people are going to act the way they want, not the way we want them to. A psychological alternative is to stop focusing on our own irrational reaction to what others are doing or not doing so that we are able to focus on calmly and caringly help others in overcoming their impediments and challenges.
Psychological research has shown that individuals intrinsically committed to their religious tradition can are more focused on affirmative care for others, such as giving financial charity and doing voluntary work.3
Many religious traditions urge us along the path of letting go of self in caring for others. One contemporary guide to Buddhism tells us: “love, generosity, having common values, appreciation of others, being sensitive to their needs and not always demanding one’s own way.4This is seen in the Buddhist concept of tanha, often translated as ‘blind demandingness’ which is to ask of the universe [in this case, others] more than it is ready or able to give.
Hebrew tradition marries wisdom and helpfulness. The Jewish Talmud has two relevant passages: “Examine the contents, not the bottle.” This spiritual counsel would prompt us to discern the real, deserving needs of others and thus to enhance our ability to provide effective help. The Talmud goes on to say: “The highest form of wisdom is kindness.” This is to say, the calm and caring help we can render.5
The Christian tradition is reflected in the counsels of St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain when he asks: “How are we to brighten up our love [helping] others?” He answers: “The less I consider myself, the more I remove myself.” By withdrawing consideration of self from our encounters with others we can put into practice the saint’s other counsel:” Through kindness and patience [we] should try to help.”6
2 Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.
5 Pies, R.W. (2000). The Ethics of the Sages: An Interfaith Commentary on Pirkei Avot. Northvale, NJ: Aronson Press]
6 Elder Paisios of Mount Athos, (2008-2012). Spiritual Counsels II,IV. Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Monastery “Evangelist John the Theologian”