By Zenessa Anderson
Whether you are choosing a career path, navigating a relationship, or deciding how to spend a Saturday night, “Do what makes you happy,” is common advice. It seems obvious, why would anyone choose something that makes them unhappy? While we are told overtly to do what makes us happy, there is at the same time a message instilled in us that suffering is noble and good. Grand-scale examples come to mind: firefighters, superheroes, and movie characters often put their lives on the line for others. There are also everyday examples that are less glaring: fluff pieces about the inspiring person doing something “despite” their disability, single parents sacrificing everything so their children can have a future, healthcare workers risking their lives to help others. We see people suffer and call it heroism instead of fixing the systems that cause the suffering. Why do we allow ourselves to celebrate suffering? Why do we judge how helpful an action is to others by how much it hurts us? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we simultaneously avoid guilt associated with not suffering enough while helping others?
The first question is the simplest. We have been culturally taught that others should be valued more highly than ourselves. How often have you heard parents, teachers, or bosses say that you should do things for others even when you don’t want to? The message is also purveyed to us in the media. From the very first books and cartoons you consumed as a child, you have been learning that helping others is the most important thing you can do. As a child, a simplified message like this is important. It lays the foundation for empathy and kindness. Putting kindness into the world, even when uncomfortable, is a valiant effort. However, as we get older that message naturally becomes more complex. This leads to an issue of self-worth. When the praised narrative is that of suffering, are we not doing enough if we aren’t suffering?
A question of selfishness is raised when thinking about your role in helping others. Where can boundaries be drawn without feeling as if you are bowing out on your responsibilities to the community? The analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask first in a plane crash is colloquially known but often discouraged due to our culture’s romanticized view of suffering. Enforcing boundaries that allow you to positively impact others without being a detriment to your own physical and mental health is important. German philosopher Immanuel Kant is most well known for his theory of social responsibility. Each person has a duty to treat others as one would want to be treated, no exceptions for any circumstance. Kant would argue that you should help others even when it harms you, for if you don’t then no other person has a responsibility to help you. While a society best functions when we help each other equally and share kindness without reserve, if everyone is harming themselves for the sake of others, then would we not still have a society of people hurting?
So, how do we reconcile a desire to help others with the need to protect ourselves? The task is up to you. Each of us needs to learn our limits and set boundaries or how far we will go. Love yourself without caveat, find your self-worth in joy you spread rather than the suffering you can endure. You can and should still find ways to help others. We as humans thrive when we show kindness and empathy. When you help others without breaking yourself down, you will be able to spread more goodness overall because you will no longer be limited by your suffering.
There will still be some sacrifices we all make to help others, like wearing a mask to prevent illness or picking up messes that may not be ours, but if we change our relationship with helping we can change the world. If we see acts of good not as a competition of suffering but as an opportunity to improve lives we are more likely to feel happy when helping. We will be able to help others without breaking the advice of “Do what makes you happy.”
Zenessa Anderson is a student at Rushford-Peterson High School. She is one of nine area students participating in the Journal Writing Project, now in its 22nd year.