The last lines of George Eliot’s (aka Mary Evans) magnificent novel, Middlemarch, contain a most important kernel of truth:
“That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
My wife, Lisa, and I make a point every Christmas to watch Frank Capra’s classic film: It’s a Wonderful Life. The underlying theme of this movie, in a much more dramatic way, illustrates the very same climactic ending of Eliot’s work. Jimmy Stewart, as the small-town banker in Bedford Falls, George Bailey, is on the brink of suicide. He discovers what the world would have been like without his presence. To his disbelief, George suddenly finds the town he had loved so dearly had deteriorated with his old friends and acquaintances doing so poorly that they are barely recognizable.
I will say no more about Capra’s movie but to suggest that if you have not seen it, it is well worth your time, as a pause from the troubled and perilous world we inhabit. This is a world full of woes given the pandemia, but added to by the ugliness that social media has armed each and every one of us. The verbal arrows we sling at one other are not those of Cupid but rather those of Mars. Although bellicose behavior is clearly one characteristic of human beings, it is not the healthiest way to function if you choose to live a long and prosperous life.
Contemporary research in the field of psychology supports that finding meaning in one’s life and giving back to others generates a sense of purpose, happiness and fulfillment. Some of my clients, who have experienced financial success, expressed a certain amount of dissatisfaction with their lives. I often find they are in search of a means to help others by using their expertise in some unique way. The size of the contribution is not nearly as important as the sense of accomplishment one feels. For example, what provides me with a sense of satisfaction is mentoring younger people who are just beginning to flap their wings in preparation of leaving the family nest to face the many roadblocks and complications that inevitably await them in life.
Not all contributions need to be of a tangible nature. Even changing one’s frame of mind or suspending one’s automatic views of a subject or an individual could have a positive influence on others. A concrete example that I have seen in my clinical practice as a psychologist is when a couple has difficulty with communication. Although simply listening to what a partner is saying is not a panacea for all of a couple’s problems, sometimes a partner’s supportive acknowledgement of what the other is saying, without offering advice, can be helpful. This sounds so simple but for many couples this would mean a radical change in their pattern of communication.
The point here is that often a rudimentary change in one’s behavior can bring with it some wonderful repercussions. Few of us think about the effect we have on other people when we act generously or kindly to others. But isn’t this precisely what Eliot is saying when she observes those small kind actions of others do not go unnoticed but rather leave you and I much better off than we were previously. Perhaps seeing your deeds having this small yet significant ripple effect on others will facilitate whatever small changes you may have resisted in the past. That’s the paradox of change: Breaking bad habits can be tediously hard to do. Yet change has been a part of the human race throughout our relatively short history on planet earth. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, put it most succinctly when he said: “There is nothing permanent except change.”