“An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow horizons of his particular individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. … Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
The start of the New Year traditionally comes with resolutions to improve the way we live. Weight loss and exercise top the list of the most popular efforts to change. Many people will vow to quit smoking and drink less alcohol. And there is a host of common resolutions aimed at making monetary gains and intellectual improvements. But only one, volunteering time to help others, touches upon King’s persistent and urgent question.
Americans spend almost $11 billion on self improvement and motivational products each year. They’re loaded with formulas to lose weight, make more money and improve personal relationships. And there isn’t a shortage of books which claim to reveal the secrets to living a life filled with happiness.
In fact, a book titled The Secret promised it all. Published in 2006, it is an international best-seller with more than 19 million copies in print. “People have used The Secret to manifest their perfect homes, life partners, cars, jobs, and promotions” author Rhonda Byrne proclaims. As “you learn The Secret, you will come to know how you can have, be, or do anything you want.”
About 15 years earlier, spiritual activist and author Marianne Williamson burst onto the new age scene with a similar kind of book titled A Return to Love. She writes in her preface that love can be a “daily answer to the problems that confront us. … Whether our psychic pain is in the area of relationships, health, career, or elsewhere, love is a potent force, the sure, the Answer.”
It’s never that easy. Yet there is a legitimate need to improve our lives in order to provide help to others. It follows the same simple philosophy as donning our own oxygen mask before helping a child during an in-flight emergency. If we aren’t physically and psychologically healthy, we’re probably not well prepared to give meaningful help to less fortunate people in our community.
But self improvement can become a time consuming obsession forever hampered by our human imperfections. It can lead us away from giving the best of what we have to offer right now. And right now is when we’re needed, especially considering the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and the overall political mood of the country. We’re coming upon an era when government will be less likely to address the needs of others.
You don’t have to be a liberal to believe that our country needs effective programs to aid people affected by unemployment, disabilities, and poverty in general. And the wish to shrink government isn’t exclusive to libertarian thought. The efforts we make in our own communities can affect the goals of both philosophies. A collective of individuals can be more effective addressing these problems than bureaucrats following rules and regulations imposed by a distant bureaucracy.
It’s a matter of taking the principles that helped heal the broken fragments in our lives and applying them to the larger world around us. This is the theme of “Healing the Soul of America”, another book written by Marianne Williamson. But unlike her other writings, it garnered far less attention and fewer followers. It’s as if we as nation have an innate resistance to anything not central to our individual pursuits.
That’s not to say that there aren’t many non-profit and faith based organizations already doing this work right here in Juneau. Obviously though, there aren’t enough. They are cash strapped as well in these difficult economic times. That’s where giving time comes in.
What if we re-imagine our most cherished self evident truth that we’re all created equal to extend beyond self attainment of wealth and happiness. Don’t we all have an equal opportunity to give the best of who we are to improve the lives of those less fortunate? If we learn to balance our inner focus on self improvement with the power of giving, maybe we can begin to heal the soul of the communities in which we live.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.