The Difference Between Giving Comfort To Others And Taking It Away
Either one will get you high. Which one works for you?
In recent days I’ve gotten hooked on the television series Outlander on Netflix. At first, I liked it for the stunning landscapes, photography, and the portrayal of life in Scotland around 1743. I really love the courtesy in the dialog. While watching Outlander, I took some peace in a life bereft of all of the gadgets. I wondered at a life with no wires, no radio waves, no remote communications save for paper, pen, and wax. I have also enjoyed the sense of fellowship amongst the protagonists in the series. But there was something else I noticed.
As the drama played out on screen, I noticed the feelings I got when one protagonist gave comfort to another protagonist. When Jaimie Fraser gives comfort to Claire Beauchamp, when he truly accepts her exactly the way she is, I enjoyed that feeling. When she reciprocates, I have the same sense about me.
I have also noticed the feelings I get when the scurrilous British Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall is up to no good. When he punishes another for failing to surrender to his will, the punishment is severe, and I have noticed that feeling I get there, too. I have noticed that television dramas often cycle between acts of giving and taking comfort as plot elements.
As I noticed that cycle of plot elements last night while I was binging two episodes of Outlander, I started to notice those feelings in myself. I looked back on my life and took notice of how I felt giving and taking away comfort from other people. I noticed that I felt a certain rush when I made other people uncomfortable. I noticed a different rush when I gave them comfort. Once I noticed the difference, I noticed my bias.
Over the course of my life, I have taken increasing notice of the feelings I get when I help or hinder someone. When I have hindered someone, I noticed sharp feelings in my gut, and the discomfort I felt with those feelings. When I have helped someone overcome an obstacle, I have noticed an almost giddy sensation, a sort of elation. I’ve noticed that humans are hardwired for these feelings.
When my wife makes a mistake, then I make a point to be there to help. I take command of the situation and work with her to fix the mistake. I give her assurances that I have no interest in placing blame and that my only interest is to restore peace in the present moment.
When my kids make a mistake, I do the same thing for them. I assure them that I’m here to help, I provide a sort of command presence for them, and then I proceed to help them fix their mistakes. I remind them that I’m not interested in blame and that I’m only interested in restoring peace.
At work, I perform a similar service for my customers. I help them resolve problems that have been on their minds for hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months. When I arrive I give my customer that same assurance that I’ve got control over the situation and that I will continue working on the problem until it is resolved.
When the task is complete, whatever it may be, I get that feeling, a sort of giddy little high that I have never experienced doing anything else. I have found this feeling consistently across my range of experience helping other people. From helping my mom with her computer, to helping my kids fix a toy, to helping a customer solve a problem, the same happy feeling emerges, though with varying intensity, every time.
I have tried the other way, too. I’ve punished other people for perceived slights and wrongs. I’ve done the silent treatment. I’ve ghosted people. I’ve walked away from friendships. I’ve broken relationships. I’ve done all that out of spite and I’ve never felt very good about it. When I did those things, I did get a hit. I could feel a burning sensation in my stomach just as I was about to say the words or do the deed, and I’ve felt that hit every time. A very negative hit.
I learned the difference between these two ways of comporting myself, between giving and taking away comfort, with others, in my late 20s. That’s when I really started to get clear on what it was that I wanted in life. I think that more than anything, I wanted peace in my life, and I wanted to share it with other people. I was tired of being alone, and when I took comfort away from others, I lost their company, their camaraderie, and their companionship. So I learned to err on the side of peace, which I consider to be my prime directive.
I’m deep into middle age now. Technically, I’m a senior citizen. After decades of practicing my prime directive, my mind is clearer now. No longer do I spend my days in self-reproach, pining away for a chance to do it right this time. I came to know that the lesson will be repeated until it is learned. Knowing that made it easy for me to brave any mistakes in my quest for personal peace. The feelings I got from doing right and wrong showed me that my chest and my gut were my moral compass. I only needed a few principles to follow.
There are good principles to follow everywhere. Some are in the Bible. Some are in the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. Some are in The 4 Agreements. Some are in Star Trek. Some are littered on The Road Less Traveled. I took what I liked and left the rest. I tested each one to see if they worked for me. But the easiest principle for me to remember was to err on the side of peace.
Suffering is a part of the human condition. There is no escaping suffering, and the path of least resistance through suffering is acceptance. Acceptance is the lubricant that makes all other good things possible. The moment we accept where we are when we are, and why we’re having a less than pleasant experience — the consequences of our actions — is the moment we can begin to build a life of peace. We learn by repetition, and I’ve found that when I practiced erring on the side of peace over and over again, that I became serene.
I found that with serenity comes an awareness of the emotional benefits of helping other people. With serenity, I became keenly aware of the consequences of my actions. I could compare the options I was considering before taking action. I began to know the feeling I would experience if I respond to a question with an accusation, if I conveniently omit a task I committed to doing, or if I punish someone for a perceived slight. I could see myself always looking over my shoulder, always checking for compliance when I had expectations of others, and I could never find any peace. I could compare all that with the peace of mind of helping someone else.
Erring on the side of peace is a virtuous circle. Erring not on the side of peace is a negative feedback loop. I found that I was stirring the pot of discomfort when I had expectations that others would change for me. In contrast, I noticed that I always felt better after “letting it go”, whatever the offense might be. Spilt milk, lost money, the car banged up, it didn’t matter. I found that when I was forgiving, whatever was lost wasn’t as valuable as the people in my life, and whatever things were lost were usually replaced.
When I helped others, I found that my actions tended to lead to the changes I wanted to see in people because when I help others, not only do I get the hit, the high, the dopamine, or the gratification, I was modeling the behavior I wanted to see in others. I became the change I wanted to see. When I am following a principle that leads to peace, I found that others would imitate me. This is probably why Jesus said, “Follow me”, and why he did not say, “Compel others to follow me.” He understood that people learn by imitation.
We live in perilous times right now because some people choose to make it perilous. Some people would rather divide the whole for their perceived benefit than for the benefit of all of us. While it may be important to take note of the people who would rather divide us for their own security, I think it is better to just change ourselves.
I use that moral compass I spoke of earlier as a guide. I check in to see how I feel when I help others. That feeling is my guide. We have that feeling because our survival depends on it. If we follow that moral compass, and then we take notice of the level of peace we have later on, we may find that our chest and gut are pretty good indicators of how we may comport ourselves. My chest and my gut have given me the discipline I need to behave in a way that lets me sleep at night.
I don’t just help others because it feels good. I help others because I believe that doing so supports mutual survival. I err on the side of peace to support the survival of myself and the people around me. I don’t worry about the outcome, I am only concerned with the action.
The feelings I get as a consequence of my behavior tend to reinforce my habits. I measure the results of my behavior by the amount of peace I have in my life. With practice, I developed an awareness of the dopamine hit from helping other people and related that to more peace in my life. That virtuous cycle tends towards something called contentment.
Contentment is the sense we have of knowing that we can get our needs met and still maintain peace in our environment. The environment includes the inner conversation that we have with ourselves. We help other people, we have more peace, the more peace we have, the better our conversations with ourselves become. As we become familiar with peace, we become more aware of our capacity to help others, our capacity to help others increases with awareness. It’s a virtuous cycle.
When we are adversarial towards others, we get no peace, our mind is filled with worry, rapprochement, and we have difficulty getting help from others with our own problems. Living an adversarial life makes it hard to trust others. I know from my own experience that when I was that way, I had a hard time sleeping at night. I had a hard time asking for help because I was creating problems for myself.
Both cycles of helping or hindering others, churned out endorphins like crazy. One side made me tired. The other side made my life peaceful. Years of testing and practice brought me to this place of having the discipline to hold my tongue, check my assumptions, and err on the side of peace. I now have the capacity to consistently experience the joy I get from helping other people, no matter who or where they are. The contentment I derive from this practice also allows me to be more forgiving. Yet another virtuous circle.