A journalist friend called last week to tell me that she found a man in bad condition living on the pavement. She tried to get him to some place where he would be out of the rain, but he didn’t budge so she called me for help. Would I be willing to be of service?
My life sometimes seems like a never-ending ‘to-do’ list, often reducing time management decisions to what I let slide rather than what I actually work on. Though I presumed this trip to India would be more conducive to focusing one thing at a time, my familiar American habit of attention fragmentation works surprisingly the same on this side of the world, reducing progress on any given project to a snail’s pace. Delegation has been a savior, but an underlying thirst for greater forward movement is a dangerous catalyst that can crystallize missions into ambitions.
Missions are based on values and have definite objectives. To the extent that your mission is planted in universal values like compassion and love, work towards reaching your objectives gently dissolves your ego.
Ambition is based on enjoyment and has vague or shifting objectives at best. Though often guised in grand overtures or clever hype, ambition is really just about yourself. To the extent that you ride your ambition, you increasingly cloud your mind in self-deception as your ballooning ego chokes out reality.
In the end, all the things that I am working on are aimed at trying to be of service. Its unjustifiable to ignore the service needed right in front of my face in favor of service to some distant, vague third-party in the future. Though it may seem irresponsible to rationalists, I dropped everything I was doing to go see this man and spend a few hours with him on the side of the road.
I only wish I always had the clarity to be rooted in my mission instead of my ambition.
As a few people pointed out, there are innumerable people in need of help. This has some truth in it, but all of those people didn’t cross my path. One man’s paradise is another man’s hell, so its also dangerous to assume that people need or want help, and one has to be careful to not color a situation with one’s own misery-tinted glasses. In this particular case, the waterlogged and ill man didn’t want to move one inch despite my best efforts to convince him that he would be better off elsewhere.
This business of helping is a dangerous one. Caution and grace are required to assist in a way that doesn’t damage other’s self-respect and self-reliance, nor caters to laziness. In extreme cases, there are all sorts of other psychological factors that complicate the situation. The man on the street was extremely depressed, making it tough for him to want to accept anything that would improve his condition. Even my attempts at making him laugh.
Still, wouldn’t my other work have been tainted with insincerity and self-deception if I allowed deadlines to get in the way of a helping hand?