About a month ago, I came across a video on a friend’s blog. It was a video presentation of the highly popular commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College, titled This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life.
And yes, I want you to watch it.
I know, I’m asking a lot of you to watch a 9-minute video. Personally, I tend to avoid anything over 5 minutes because that’s the point where I need a guarantee beforehand that it won’t be a waste of my time. So here’s my guarantee. This video has been a life-changer for me. So, for your own sake, take the time and watch it:
He that loseth his life…shall find it
About six months ago, I wrote one of my first blog posts about how giving can make you richer. The inspiration from the post came from a lecture I attended at BYU by Arthur C. Brooks (you can read the transcript here). For the first time in my life, I realized that the only way for me to find true wealth in this life is by putting others first. Brooks’ focus is mainly on the monetary rewards of giving, but the reason why those who give tend to earn more is simply because they’re happier.
From my experience, true happiness comes when you lose yourself in the service of others, whether that service is structured or as simple as a smile and “Hello” when you notice someone. The times in my life where I have learned the most about myself (or you could say, found myself) are the times I have put the needs of others ahead of my own.
How I found my (com)passion
The experience that jumps out the most was when, five years ago, I did something spontaneous. Normally, I don’t do spontaneous. And when it comes to giving, I don’t generally have any problem donating money, but I’m kind of a time miser. I’m also pretty introverted so it’s hard to get out of my shell sometimes. So five years ago, I decided to challenge myself. My best friend told me about a group called HELP International that was doing summer trips to Fiji for humanitarian aid. He said it would be fun to do together.
So I got everything ready to go: I talked to my boss, I started doing fundraising like crazy, and I went to all their meetings about how not to die while living in a developing country. I had committed myself emotionally as well as financially…and then my friend dropped out of the program. I hope you can imagine my terror. I was about the embark alone on a six-week trip eighteen time zones away and would spend my time with a small house full of people I met once in an awkward get-to-know-you meeting.
When I got to my gate at the airport, I noticed a girl talking on her phone about going to Fiji. I knew she was going to be in my group, but I couldn’t even bring myself to say hi–now before you mock my introversion, watch this TED talk about how awesome we are.
I ended up in a three-room house with 15 other people, 14 of which were girls. For the majority of my time, I slept on a mat on the floor where cockroaches crawled over my sleeping body at night, and we spent the days drenched in sweat under the sun and humidity (thank goodness we didn’t go during their summer), working on different projects in the surrounding villages.
One day, about two weeks in, as we were riding home in a cab from another town where we taught business school, I had some serious introspection. I wondered what I was doing there. The first two weeks were hard. It took a lot out of me to try to be outgoing and I felt like a failure. As I stuck my arm out the window into the cool night air, I looked up at the stars and realized something.
I wasn’t doing this trip for the people of Fiji. I was doing it for me. I was doing it to prove to myself that I cared. That I was a good person. I was disgusted with myself. But instead of wallowing in that disgust, I used the motivation it sparked to change. For the next four weeks, I wasn’t perfect. I still struggled to overcome my boring introversion and do a double check on my motivations, but over time my heart changed, and by the time I left that country, I had learned so much from these beautiful people, and I developed relationships with my fellow volunteers that remain among my fondest. I also developed a love for the Fijian people that will never die.
That love extends to all other people in this world who suffer from hunger, exposure, curable diseases, lack of education and lack of opportunity. In recent years, I’ve realized that there are even millions of people like that in my own country, where opportunity and the American Dream are trumpeted as our culture.
Compassion changes you
Before my trip to Fiji, I wanted to be a CEO or CFO of a Fortune 500 company. To me, that was the epitome of success. But my experience in Fiji, coupled with an opportunity to learn directly from Fortune 500 executives in lectures at BYU, made me realize that I could definitely achieve that goal, but it just wasn’t what I wanted anymore. I still want to be wealthy one day, and I would love to be in Bill and Melinda Gates’ shoes (watch their recent TED talk about how giving away their wealth has been the most satisfying thing they’ve ever done–extra note: they aren’t planning on giving their kids ANY of their money. They want them to work for it. Now that’s what I’m talking about ;))
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that compassion doesn’t need to be on such a grand scale to make a difference. As I try to be more selfless in my marriage, it has become something the sweetest and most precious thing I am privileged to have. As I try to be more understanding and less judgmental about the people around me, I can be a helping hand rather than a heavy one. And as I try to sacrifice things I love, whether it be my time, my wants or even my money, it’s easier for me to see that true happiness comes when we put more focus on fulfilling the needs of others.
Of course, I say I try because I’m far from where I want to be. I’m still somewhat a time miser, and it still takes all I have to get out of my shell to reach out to someone else. But it has changed me. As I see people who are where I used to be–people who believe the world revolves around them, who are irritated, or even enraged, at the slightest inconvenience or disturbance to their perfect world–it makes me sad. It makes me want to share what I’ve learned (or sometimes when I’m really worked up about it, which happens more often than I would like, I want to force it down their throats :)). But in the end, the only thing I can do to truly help them change is by exercising the same thing that helped me to start the change: compassion.
And a lot of it is about just being aware. As you become aware of the needs and feelings of others, you realize that we all need love and compassion.
The result of all this, for me, goes far beyond anything money could ever buy. The wealth of a compassionate life affects the people around you, but it affects you even more. It changes your perspective on life. It changes your priorities. It changes your perception of needs vs. wants. It also makes people want to be around you, giving you more of an opportunity to make a difference.
But above all, it makes you happier than you ever thought possible.