We’re all on a journey of growth, change and evolution, and hopefully most of us are trying to make a conscious effort to be better human beings. I’m not talking about being better at math, or improving running speed, but being more aware, compassionate, kind, noble, and honourable. None of us are perfect, but by engaging in some of the examples listed below, maybe we can leave this world a little brighter than how we found it.
Photo: Jesper Sachmann, via Flickr
Learn to let go of pain, anger, bitterness, resentment, and all the other destructive emotions that tear us apart. All we ever have is this present moment; this breath, this heartbeat, this opportunity for growth and presence. This is a moment we’ll never get back again, and if we consider the fact that we have no idea how long we’ll live, do we want to waste precious moments roiling with emotions that don’t do any good for anyone? What’s passed is past, and tomorrow doesn’t exist. Be present, and do not hold on to negativity.
Consider the Consequences of Every Action
Being conscientious is extremely important, as every action causes ripples that extend far beyond what can immediately be seen. For example: if you throw a piece of litter on the ground, not only does that pollute the environment, but if there are any children around to see you do so, they might think that such behaviour is acceptable, and then they’ll do the same, and so on.
Be Willing to Admit Ignorance, So You Can Learn
Very few people seem to be comfortable with admitting that they don’t know something. Maybe they feel that admitting ignorance about a subject will make them seem stupid, so they’ll feign knowledge and attempt to go with the flow in any given situation. This is highly detrimental on many counts, from a person being seen as an insufferable know-it-all, to projects going awry because an employee claimed to know something they didn’t.
If you don’t know something, admit to your lack of knowledge, and then immerse yourself in the subject so that you familiarize yourself with it. The universe is full of things that we don’t know, but the only way to grow and change is to open ourselves to opportunities to learn… and those won’t come about if we don’t leave space for them by saying “I know” to everything.
Try to Be Less Judgemental
This is something we’re all guilty of on occasion, but we can be conscious of this behaviour and try to lessen it over time. Each and every one of us is on a difficult journey, and we have absolutely no right to judge another’s life choices, especially since we may not have any idea what their lives have been like. Remember that none of us are any greater or lesser than any other, so approach all with an open mind and open heart, as equal travellers on life’s road.
Consider Another’s Point of View
When faced with a viewpoint that differs from theirs, many people get defensive, and lash out. I’m sure we’ve all seen comment discussions on Facebook or other webpages that began with a simple difference of opinion, but then dissolved into name-calling, insults, and other abusive language. What’s the point of that, really? If someone’s opinion differs from yours, try to understand their point of view—you don’t have to agree with them, but that doesn’t mean that they should be insulted or made fun of for thinking differently.
Be Generous with Compliments
We will all go through difficult times, including periods in which we might not feel great about ourselves. Relationships can fall apart, jobs can be lost, school subjects can be failed, and emotional upheaval generally accompanies each of these experiences. Do you remember what it felt like the last time someone told you something wonderful that they thought about you? Imagine what others will experience when you say something lovely to them out of the blue.
You don’t necessarily have to approach a stranger to tell them that you like their hair/clothes/etc. (although you can absolutely do this as long as you’re not creepy about it), but you can even send someone a quick text or email to tell them something great. A simple line such as: “I was thinking about you today, and wanted to let you know how grateful I am to have someone as amazing as you in my life” can change the entire course of someone’s day, and you can rest assured that they’ll pay that beauty forward.
Cultivate Empathy and Compassion
We won’t always understand what another is going through via firsthand experience, but we can try to put ourselves in their shoes in order to have a bit more patience and compassion for them. Let’s say that you’ve been frustrated with someone because they’ve been complaining about their kids non-stop for weeks, and you just wish they’d shut the hell up for a change. Rather than focusing on your own irritation at their sprog-talk, think about where they’re coming from. They may not have slept properly for weeks, or may be incredibly worn out dealing with an autistic or special-needs child. Are they getting the help they need? Is this person in despair? Are they reaching out for any measure of comfort?
We’re often so blinded by our own emotions and responses to situations that we don’t consider the bigger picture, but taking a step back and analysing the situation can shed a lot of light, and help us change our thoughts and actions accordingly.
Study History, Even if it’s Uncomfortable to Do
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, which is why it’s so vital to really be aware of what has happened in the past; so we’re well aware of what brought us to where we are now, and how we can avoid their recurrence in the future. If you’re unfamiliar with the African slave trade, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Cambodia’s killing fields, the Cathar Heresy, Pinochet’s regime, the Trail of Tears, and countless other atrocities that most people don’t even want to think about, let alone remember, it’s a good idea to delve into them. It’ll hurt like hell to do so, but it’s incredibly important to know about such topics so we can ensure that they never happen again.
Spend Time in Nature
The Senegalese ecologist Baba Dioum once said: “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” He was quite right, wasn’t he? If people are only exposed to material wealth, that’s what they will cherish and place priority upon. By spending time in nature, we can learn to appreciate all the beauty that the natural world provides.
Spending time in the forest can also have a marked effect on our well being: in Japan, “forest therapy” is becoming more popular, as the natural environment can lower blood pressure and stress in those who spend at least 20 minutes immersed in a wooded environment.
Photo: the author
Help Those Who Cannot Help Themselves
Take in abandoned kittens to foster, or help to rehabilitate an injured bird. Stop in at a retirement home, hospice, or children’s hospital a couple of times per month to assist in volunteer programs. There are so many beings out there (both human and non) who could use a helping hand, and making a connection with a being who is vulnerable and in need of our help, is a life-changing experience. You cannot help but discover vital aspects about your self and your place in the world when you care for another.
Get to Know Different People
In many cities around the world, libraries participate in a “human library” project: folks from all backgrounds and walks of life volunteer a few hours of their time, and you can take the opportunity to sit down and chat with them for a little while. You may have never had the chance to chat with a Buddhist monk, a lesbian single mother, a Wiccan priestess, a police officer, an Imam from your local mosque, an ex gang member, or a person who has been disfigured in a fire or accident, but by sitting down and chatting with them (especially in an environment where no question is considered “stupid”), you can have the opportunity to connect on a very human level and move past any preconceptions or prejudices.
If your city doesn’t have one of these libraries, consider taking the time to seek out those whom you have always been curious about—you may discover that they are far more open to chatting with you than you’d expected. We all like to be understood and respected for who we are, and open dialogues are so conducive to greater compassion and acceptance of differences.
Along that very line…
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
This could mean immersing yourself in subject matter that you’re unfamiliar with (or even vaguely uncomfortable with) as a means to understand others more, going to a festival centred around a culture other than your own, attending religious services for a faith other than yours, or even just trying a new food. Every experience helps us grow as individuals, and even if you find that whatever you tried isn’t to your taste, at least your opinion stems from a place of awareness and experience, rather than just aversion and preconception.
That seems like a simple concept, but it can be fairly difficult in practice. There’s a song by The Smiths that contains the lyrics: “It’s so easy to laugh. It’s so easy to hate. It takes strength to be gentle and kind”, and those are quite apt, aren’t they? Most of us are quite harried and stressed out, and it’s easy to overlook social niceties like thanking fast food workers, or excusing yourself if you bump into someone. Remember that people will always remember how you treated them, even if it’s just a couple of words tossed in their direction, so make them count.
Practice Random Acts of Kindness
This goes along with the previous recommendation, and can also make a monumental impact on more people than you can imagine. Paying for someone else’s coffee, offering your seat on the subway to an elderly passenger, or even just putting a bowl of water outside your workplace for dogs to drink from are just a few examples of little acts that can mean a great deal to others.
Appreciate Beauty, and Share It When You Can
There is an abundance of beauty around us at all times, if we but take a moment to really notice and appreciate it. Music, art, literature, nature, a partner’s smile, an animal’s friendship—these are all gorgeous, beautiful gifts that make life worth living. Appreciate them, be creative in your own way so you can bring even more beauty into the world, and share bits of joy as you come across them; you might just change another person’s life by doing so.