November 13, 2013

A Purposeful Life

The first time I reached out to help a complete stranger, I was rewarded with an incredible feeling of purpose. A young gal who barely spoke English was stranded at the Toronto airport. Her flight from Mexico City had arrived late, she missed her connection, and the airline told her she had to wait until the following day to resume her journey. She was anxious, tired, and too nervous to leave the airport in a strange city. Heading home for the holidays, she just wanted to be with family.

I couldn't believe that they were penalizing her 24 hours for a flight delay that was not her fault. She was going to miss a full day of her planned stay, yet was too shy to put up a fuss. I knew there were several flights every hour heading to Montreal - why couldn't they put her on one of them?

I marched over to the nearest ticket agent and explained the young woman's plight. Long story short, the intervention ended up with the ticket agent being a real-life hero (even though he worked for WestJet, he talked Air Canada into seeing the error of their ways and got her on a flight that was leaving within the hour, and he even arranged her luggage transfer). I ran with her to the security gate where another agent was waiting, we hugged and she told me I was her "Christmas angel." We both had tears in our eyes. I'll never forget that ticket agent, and I sent an email to WestJet to commend his actions.

I know all stories don't have happy endings. But this one did, and it got me thinking about how we often pull back from helping others, simply because we're not sure it will do any good, and sometimes because we don't think it will be appreciated. Either way, though, why not try?

There is a great sense of purpose in helping others; an indescribable joy that nothing else seems to match. In our society, we are used to being rewarded monetarily, not emotionally. Yet, even though I've worked very hard for people willing to pay me for my skills and made a lot of money, I've never felt the same satisfaction. Something about removing money from the equation makes it a more valuable experience, for me.

These days, I find myself helping others as a matter of course. I offer my help when I think I can be useful, and I'm happy to be there for others when they say they need me. I try not to make any promises I can't keep, and I'm always mindful of doing it for the right reasons. Trying to get someone's approval, desperately wanting a pat on the back, hoping to raise your status in some way -- those are wrong reasons. You have to do it because you want to help. Period.

I've been on the other end of asking for help, too. The last time I moved, people said "If you need help, let me know!" I'm proud and independent, so it's not easy for me to ask. When I called two of the people who had offered, neither of them were available or willing, as it turned out. They were very polite and contrite, but the end result was that the offer was more superficial than real. And that's OK! They probably didn't expect me to take them up on their offer. But lesson learned: I now make a point of never offering unless I know I can follow through.

There are times when you feel you're being taken advantage of - and there are times when you wish you hadn't offered! But overall, I have to say that being a helpful person is genuinely the most comforting role I've taken on in the last ten years. I enjoy helping others, and I'm not bragging about it or trying to make myself into some sort of mystical martyr. In fact, I think it's selfish. I get direct pleasure from giving, I think most of us do. We've just learned to play it down and not make a big deal out of it, and we've also learned that we're weak or foolish if we spend too much time doing something for nothing. And by nothing, I mean money.

My mother says - Wouldn't it be nice if these people paid you for their time? And I have to answer honestly that no, it wouldn't be as nice. Caring for each other should come naturally and doesn't involve any "marketable" skills. If you get joy from doing it, even better!

Celebrated New York photographer Bill Cunningham said it best, in a brilliant documentary which showcased his amazing generosity of spirit (he once refused a $1,000,000 honorarium from the New York Times) - "If a dollar figure is attached to it, I will owe them. I will feel obligated, and that will take away from the pleasure I receive in doing my work." His passion for sharing was more important than his need to be financially rewarded.

This is an idealistic way to think, and we live in a real world. But I agree with Bill. Money just muddies the heart's purpose. And a purposeful life is a wonderful one, in my opinion.

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