Selfish Selflessness

December 2, 2009

Note To Self – Always remember how you can still recall your parents’ off handed comments from childhood…

As an example, my father, an outplacement counselor,  lodged this memory in a still accessible mental file cabinet. Recounting the highlights of a client meeting with my mom over dinner, he explained, “I told him to go out and do something good for someone else. It would decrease his depression and get him moving.”

Perhaps this snippet stuck with me that I was privy to inside information about my father’s work life, but regardless, it was sage advice that has come to serve me well.

This week, my friend Deborah, doing something nice for another, sent me a New York Times article that provides scientific backup for my dad’s derivation on the Golden Rule. This seemed especially appropriate to share after last week’s Thanksgiving and the Islamic world’s celebration of Eid — two holidays which focus on the giving of food to loved ones and those less fortunate.

As Tara Parker-Pope writes, “An array of studies have documented this effect. In one, a 2002 Boston College study,researchers found that patients with chronic pain fared better when they counseled other pain patients, experiencing less depression, intense pain and disability.

Another study, at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, Calif., also found a strong benefit to volunteerism, and after controlling for a number of variables, showed that elderly people who volunteered for more than four hours a week were 44 percent less likely to die during the study period.”

So, how do we kick ourselves out of our house of struggles and do something good without an outplacement counselor or parent urging us on?

We can make giving a daily practice like making our beds or brushing teeth. A young woman with MS, Cami Walker, followed this tenet after one of her spiritual teachers pushed her to give something to another for 29 days without fail. You can read her story at her website

I had read about Cami’s commitment to give a gift for 29 days and visited this site as she was just beginning this practice for the first time in 2008. It was a simple website, just a couple of pages, documenting what she gave each day and how it might be helping her cope with her illness. I appreciated her authenticity and courage as she faced the challenge and MS.

Reading Parker-Pope’s profile on Cami, I returned to 29 Gifts and was struck by how much positive change she has manifested in the past year both in her own life and beyond. It’s worth a visit.

So, whether it’s just for today, for 29 days or every day, what might we do to lighten another’s load? What simple gift can you give? How can we be selfishly selfless and prove my father right? As a loyal advice giver like his daughter, he’d appreciate that I’m sure.

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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