A wise person once said that the only important question is: What should I do now? It is a simplification, but a useful one. With our actions, we make our karma, we make ourselves, we create and destroy things in the world. Whether we find ourselves in a fraught situation or just mulling over our next move, how do we decide what to do now?
It will not surprise you that I frame my own response in terms of the Buddha’s four truths and the Eight-fold path, but I recently came across another useful formulation. In Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise, there is a quote from an interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (http://www.rabbisacks.org) which states that the determinants of happiness are:
- Do good for others
- Have a network of strong and supportive relationships
- Have a sense that one’s life is worthwhile
In terms of actions and their results, Rabbi Sacks recommends the same path as the Buddha – wholesome words and actions and noble friendships.
In my mind, the goals above are sequential. If we do good for others, we will naturally build a network of strong and supportive relationships, and from these we may get the sense that our life is worthwhile. This is not a philosophy but an action plan. We can think and plan and wish, but in the end it’s what we do that matters most.
It’s true that for some people, the idea of turning towards the needs of others is a struggle. A good friend with a long history of depression once told me that when you are depressed it’s impossible to think about anyone else. This came as a shock to me, but I have no reason to doubt her words. For people wrestling with their own demons, there is a responsibility to try new remedies, new possibilities for coming into balance. One of those might be joining a support group, where one’s own burden is respected, but there are also others who are visibly suffering and might benefit from our attention.
For most of us, the option of considering the needs of others is almost always available. We can be on time to appointments so others don’t have to wait for us; we can check in with people who are in distress or transition; we can share what we’ve got, whether we’ve made it ourselves or not; we can encourage people in doubt.
I’ve recently had elective surgery that has temporarily made getting around a lot harder. The care and attention I’ve received from both expected and unexpected sources has been inspiring. There are a few people for whom giving steady, caring attention to most of the people they know is their natural instinct. Generosity of all kinds is contagious, so these relationships are constantly nourished by actions that demonstrate mutual regard. This is my aspiration, to choose caring actions more and more of the time.