It has become clear that one’s attitudes and one’s actions contribute greatly to how one experiences difficult times, whether it is a cross-country move, a surgery, the death in one’s circle of friends/family, or a loss of a job (just to name a few possibilities). When our focus is totally placed on our own self, moving forward in life becomes very difficult. If, however, we change our focus outwardly then positive things can and often do happen. That doesn’t mean that positive thinking or even positive action will cure all that ails you, but it does make a difference in how we engage the world that we know, especially during difficult times. Conversations such as these must take into account the deep resources to be found in our faith traditions, most of which call on the individual to look outward to the needs of the other and the needs of the community, especially at those times when we’re tempted to close in on ourselves.
Stephen G. Post’s The Hidden Gifts of Helping has the initial look of a self-help book, a genre that I have always kept arm’s length, because too often “self-help” books offer easy answers to difficult questions or push the reader to a bit too much self-involvement, and thus ultimately fall short of the mark. Post’s book is in the self-help genre, but it’s more than the typical self-help book. Written by someone deeply rooted in a particular faith tradition (Episcopalian) who has done graduate work in theology, this is book suggests that we can derive spiritual, emotional, and physical benefit from reaching out to others.
As noted, Post writes as a person of faith, but the spirituality that provides the foundation for much of what he writes is often left more implicit than explicit. He brings into the conversation biblical texts and Buddhist writings. That is, he believes that the principles espoused here – that helping others brings health and hope to one’s own life as well as contributing to the common good of all – can be found present in almost all faith traditions. He draws on these varied resources – both sacred and secular – in a fairly seamless manner, so that we’re able to grasp his basic premise, which is that both the giver and the recipient of self-giving love benefit from this exchange is deeply rooted in the spiritual principle of the golden rule as well as the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
Although he draws upon a variety of stories in the course of the book, one of the key drivers of the narrative is the story of his family’s move from Cleveland to New York in 2008. He tells us that moving from one place is difficult, and thus, if one is able, it is best to stay put. But, when one must move from one place to another, it is possible to make a new life in this new place. It can and often is painful, but when one is able to look outwardly and draw on one’s ability to help others, showing compassion and love to the other, then one’s own life is changed through these acts of engagement with the other.
Having moved my own family across the country, I understand his point, but I have to note that not all moves are as “successful” as the one he describes. For instance, his wife was able to get a job right away, a job that enabled her to contribute to the lives of others, while his son is an extrovert who quickly made new friends (he also drove his son back to Cleveland every few months for the first couple of years so as to ease the pain of separation – that isn’t always possible). Therefore, when your spouse can’t find a job and your child is an introvert, things work differently. But, with that caveat, the point is clear – giving to others, helping others does make a difference in one’s own life.
The chapters are six in number, with the initial chapter introducing us to the possibilities for learning as we “travel on life’s mysterious journey.” It is as we take this journey that we learn to find joy even in difficult circumstances and develop the confidence to face the future that has not yet been revealed. With this introduction to the possibilities inherent in the journey of discovery, Post introduces us to the “gift of the ‘giver’s glow,’” a gift that involves learning that helping others makes us human, that helping is built into our brains, and that helping others has therapeutic value. Indeed, helping others can help us live longer lives, belying the saw that “only the good die young.” There is benefit in reaching out to others and engaging in work that will heal the world.
Pushing the discussion deeper, Post suggests that there is a gift to be found in connecting with the neediest among us. There is difficulty in reaching out to the truly needy, but there is also great reward, if we’re willing to take the risk. From this connection with the neediest, he moves to the “gift of “deep happiness.” The question, of course, is “what is happiness?” Post suggests that there are three types, two of which are false and will ultimately lead to disappointment. One of these false types is the “free pursuit of pleasurable experiences,” and the other form is the desire to exert power over others. True happiness, he suggests is very different. It’s not rooted in hedonism, greed, or materialism, but is instead rooted in “meaningful friendships and in contributing to others.”
Pushing even deeper, he speaks of the gift of compassion and unlimited love. The phrase “unlimited love” is his definition of the Greek word agape, which we often translate as “unconditional love.” In fact, he suggests we might want to speak of God as “Unlimited Love,” which he says would prevent us from conceiving God as either “Unlimited Hatred” or “Unlimited Anger.” His discovery of this concept began with his encounters with a blind African American musician, the Rev. Gary Davis, who helped him to discern a calling to study love. It was fueled as well by his readings of Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays and Martin Luther King. It was also influenced by his encounter with Buddhism. Ultimately, he would commit himself to the scientific study of love. From a scientific perspective we’re able to see that love is rooted in the principle that humans are relational/interdependent beings. Thus, self-giving love and self-love belong together, as the Second Commandment stipulates.
The final chapter is entitled “The Gift of Hope,” which Post suggest completes the circle – “every act of self-giving, love, and compassion gives birth to hope” (p. 149). Hope, of course, needs to be distinguished from “mere optimism,” which is “easy and smiley-faced.” Nor is it “mere expectation.” Hope is much more intentional than this, pushing us to move forward into the future believing that “something good will eventually come” (p. 142). Another way to speak of hope is to use the concept of vision, and Post uses that well known Proverb: “Where there is no vision the people perish” as a point of reference. Ultimately, he suggests, “every act of giving is an act of hope.” It draws on one’s gifts and strengths, enabling one to contribute to the greater good. There is, then, reward in doing good for the other. Altruism and egoism are not two incompatible poles. One need not denigrate oneself to help the other, but understand that we “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
Post has written a very good book that needs to be read by a people who have become attracted by an ultimately destructive ideology of selfishness. Committing ourselves to the principle that “God helps those who help themselves” will not bring us happiness or hope, but committing ourselves to living lives rooted in “unlimited love” can transform our lives. This is the kind of self-help book, I can embrace – one that recognizes that we will find our happiness and fulfillment by being in relationship with others. It is also a principle that is deeply rooted in our faith traditions. This is, then, a book well worth reading.
(Review copy provided by publicist.)