Last weekend I was sitting in an airport waiting for a connecting flight. I’d been traveling for work and was feeling exhausted, wanting to get home.
Across the row from me, was a man in his mid-forties dressed in a military uniform. He was sitting there staunchly, waiting to board a plane just like me.
After a few minutes, he stood up and began walking towards the restrooms. On his way, he stopped in the middle of the room, bent down and picked up a piece of trash. He then continued walking and tossed it into a trashcan near the restroom.
For some reason, this small action really fascinated me.
There must have been over 300 hundred people sitting nearby, but not one of them (including me) had noticed it or bothered to pick it up.
Why did this man in uniform decide to pick up the piece of trash? It wasn’t his ‘job’ to do it, and it certainly wasn’t expected of him.
Yet he took a moment to bend down and pick it up anyhow. He took the responsibility upon himself and made the airport a little nicer for the rest of us.
This made me stop and think: why hadn’t I noticed or bothered to pick up the small piece of trash myself?
I realized that in some small way, I saw that piece of trash as ‘not my problem’.
On the plane home, I did a little self-inventory.
I see myself as a generally ‘good’ person. I am kind and friendly, and courteous. But truthfully I have a very small locus of responsibility when it comes to helping others. When it comes to contributing the world, I actually do very little of it.
Why am I like that?
Am I just lazy or selfish?
I just think of most things in the world as ‘not my problem’.
The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow talked a great deal about the different needs we humans have. Once we have our basic survival and security needs solved, we seek for love, belonging and a sense of self-esteem.
In the modern world, most of us work in a job or business, provide a living for ourselves and those we love. Beyond that, we may have a hobby or entertainment that fills our time.
But the desire to contribute to the larger world is typically very limited. We don’t see the small chances to help or contribute because we are so enamored with ourselves.
Maslow explained that as a human being evolves, they will eventually reach a point where they desire to contribute to others. He called this ‘trascendence’. He said that only by contributing to others do human beings find the highest levels of happiness and fulfillment.
I am reminded of the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors is a self-absorbed weatherman stuck living the same day over and over. At first, he sees this as a living hell and tries to manipulate people for his own gain. But eventually, he finds true value and fulfillment in helping others in small and large ways.
In a movie, this makes sense and we can clearly see the value of it.
Yet in real life we ignore or avoid these small chances to help or contribute because we believe:
– We’re too busy taking care of our own needs
– It’s not our job, responsibility or problem
– We don’t want to meddle or overstep the boundaries
The small action of the military man in the airport made me see how many small opportunities are around us to contribute to the world. They may not make a huge difference, yet they give us a sense of greater fulfillment when we choose to do them.
What stands in the way is the idea of ‘not my problem’.
Since then, I’ve set myself a new way of thinking:
If I see a small chance to help someone, I’ll offer to help.
Even if the person declines, I will feel better for offering.
If I see a small chance to make something better, I’ll do it.
Even if nobody else notices, I will feel better for doing it.
The ability to contribute in small ways is always there. And it feels wonderful when you do it. But first, you must overcome the idea that it’s ‘not my problem’.