"If I am not for myself, who will be?
But if I am only for myself, what good am I?
And if not now, when?"
Rabbi Hillel over 2000 years ago
Lets consider the different lines in this very wise saying of Hillel. I can't guarantee that Hillel would have agreed with my interpretation of what he said but he's not around anymore so I can't ask him.
If I am not for myself, who will be?: There are some people who neglect helping themselves in their efforts to help others. Just because we take care of others doesn't mean they will take care of us. If you want to be treated well by others earn money and work hard toward climbing the ladder of power. Doing this puts you in a position to help others as well. Rabbi Twerski in his book It's Not As Tough As You Think writes how airline attendant's say that "if you are traveling with a small child and there is a sudden change of cabin pressure, put your own mask on first, then attend to the child." If the mother doesn't put on her mask first she might pass out and then she will be unable to put the mask on her child. This is an example of how helping oneself enables one to help others. A man who builds up his wealth can donate more to charity than a man who neglects his finances. Bill Gates has created the wealthiest charitable foundation in the world because he built up a fortune large enough to do so.
But if I am only for myself, what good am I?: If you don't contribute to society and only contribute to yourself you are less valuable as a person than if you did. That doesn't mean you don't have value. Every human being has value, in my opinion, whether they contribute to society or not. The exception to the rule is if a human being hurts others. Than a human being may take on a negative value.
And if not now, when? I don't know why Hillel put this last line with the first two but I'll venture a guess. He may be saying now is the time to be for oneself and to help others. Saying to oneself "I will help myself someday" or "I will help others some day" may result in one never helping oneself or others. The time to take action or to make a plan of action is now.
Helping others is one way to make oneself happier. Mark Twain once said:
"The best way to cheer yourself up:
Cheer everybody else up."
Dr. Clay Tucker Ladd in chapter 3 of his book Psychological Self Help writes how Dr. Rimland (Rimland, (June, 1982). Psychology Today, 16, 6, 78.) did a very simple experiment. He rated people as either happy or unhappy. Then, he rated each one as self-centered or others-centered. Dr. Rimland found that happy people were ten times more likely to be unselfish than selfish.
Does this mean that helping others makes one happy or does it mean that being happy makes one generous or both?
According to Dr. Ladd "There is accumulating evidence that striving for power, fame, wealth, and material goods--big parts of the "American Dream"--more than for good relationships, personal growth, and altruism is associated with more anxiety, more depression, and poorer general functioning (Kasser & Ryan, 1993). In short, Dr. Ladd concludes materialism may be bad for your mental (and spiritual?) health. As Fromm (1976) observed, a focus on "having" distracts us from "being" our best person."
I personally am not against materialism. I don't think it's bad to want the nice things in life. However, I can see how too much emphasis on gaining material wealth could lead to unhappiness.
According to an article in Time Magazine (The Science of Happiness, Jan 17, 2005) Sonja Lyubomirsky, of the University of California at Riverside, found that doing kind acts to others increased the happiness of those doing them.
I have learned though to be careful to make sure that people want my help before I give it. Once a girl I knew who was leaving town complained that some people hadn't held a going away party. I stuck my stupid nose into things and told them and they threw her a party. She was very angry when she found out. Another time as a surprise I washed my Dad's car in a car wash. I didn't know that certain car wash brushes can scrape off paint. He was angry about that. I've also learned not to give unsolicited advice either except on the web. Well actually sometimes I can't resist. I've learned that often the person I give advice to understands their problem better than I do and they may interpret my giving advice as my thinking I know better than they do and be offended by that. If you have an irresistible urge to give advice it may be best to give it as a question. Suppose your friend wants to drop out of college so he can surf full time and you don't think it's a good idea. Saying "that's a bad idea dude" is not likely to convince your friend to stay in college or make him like you, but asking a question like (If you don't have a college degree how are you going to get a job that pays enough so that you can afford to fly to Hawaii and take all those surfing lessons and date all those surfer girls) might be a better approach.
Free day care and benefits that acrue with each child for single mothers is an example of helping going wrong. It creates the incentive for women not to get married. It creates the incentive to have as many children as possible which the taxpayer has to pay for.
c o p y r i g h t ( c ) 1 9 9 9 -2004 Karl Ericson Enterprises. All rights reserved
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