Will you help me?

Over the last few weeks, a small number of people have reached out to me for job recommendations, mentoring and general life advice.

A part of me felt good about this. Another part snickered at these opportunistic rats. None of these guys/gals were in touch with me. And now, suddenly, they want me get them jobs, write them a speech and tell them about the best places to eat Masala dosa.

My first instinct was to help. My fifth instinct was to give them diarrhea for being such opportunists. When one friend who needed the aforementioned life advice called, she spent the first 5 minutes groaning about how I don’t keep in touch and the next 55 minutes groaning about her friends who talk to her only when they need something. I wanted to point out the irony, but decided now wasn’t a good time. I couldn’t give her any life advice because I needed some myself. All I could offer was my gleeful agreement. I told her about the diarrhea option though.

What is it that gave us both this sense of unfairness when someone – who last called a year ago for help – calls us for help, again? Why instead of celebrating the fact that we are who they called for help, we brooded over the fact that they think of us only when they need help. To understand this, we need to digress a little.

What’s your life purpose?

Sorry. I just wanted to irritate you. Irrespective of what your or my purpose is, because that’s a conversation that makes us both carsick, we presumably agree that the idea of purpose eventually settles down to helping people. The more the people, the more fame, money, legacy et al. And here’s where the ‘my purpose is to help people’ truism turns insidious. Because, when we anchor help/impact/making a difference to the holy grail of purpose, we end up threatening the whole purpose of help. Instead of being this altruistic relic that it’s supposed to be, help becomes something that has to give us a sense of purpose.

Here’s another example of how its insidiousness plays out.

Last year, I wanted to donate to a few NGO’s. I put it off because I wanted to do my research on the right NGO’s. Along the way, some NGO’s called asking for help and I dismissed them all as phonies. At the end of the year, I still hadn’t donated because I hadn’t put any effort into my research. And I even didn’t help the ones that called because it didn’t make me feel purposeful enough.

Offering help makes us feel selflessly purposeful while being asked for help makes us feel selfishly nice. We go the extra 1.6 KM when we offer help ourselves, but give it a superficial try when asked for help (barring the close connections). It’s what makes  us look for opportunities to help while at the same time dismissing help looking for us as opportunistic.

What we fail to see is that they are both the same thing. They are both still help – and making an impact – and difference and all of that. We see it differently because we interweave it with a grand purpose.

Making an impact is never the purpose. It’s the result of being purposeful. To associate helping people with a purpose will never be enough. Because, like everything else that isn’t enough, there will always be more (people).

In a way, we all want to be a lighthouse – shining our lights far and wide. We want to rescue and give direction to as many boats as we can. But unlike the lighthouse, we don’t feel purposeful unless we go looking for boats to shine our light on. When the boats come to us, we feel little purpose and sometimes even turn off the light because the boats come only when they need light.

But, all along, the lighthouse has only one purpose: to stand there – shining.

That would’ve been my life advice to my friend and myself.

The last bit about the lighthouse is a butchered version of an Anne Lamott quote.

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