“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
Before she made a name for herself, musician Patti Smith once had an encounter with the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. She didn’t have enough money for the sandwich machine, and Ginsberg was kind enough to notice and give her the extra dime, also buying her a cup of coffee. They later became good friends and would reminisce about their first meeting. Once, Ginsberg asked her how she would describe that event, to which she answered, “I would say you fed me when I was hungry.”
In the writing world, the forge of friendship between J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis gave us some of their best works that we dearly cherish. Over the course of their life and career, they always helped one another in their work, gave their utmost support, and provided valuable critiques on each other’s writings, as they stayed up late into the night with their discussions over tea and pipe smoke. After “The Hobbit” became an unexpected success, Tolkien was pressured into writing a sequel, which was then called “The New Hobbit”. He was only a few chapters in and was already stuck. He admitted to Lewis that he was feeling bored with the project, saying, “I don’t know what to do. I think I’m done”. Lewis responded, “The problem is that hobbits are only interesting when they’re in unhobbit-like situations.” — And just from that one comment, a vista opened up and gave us the beautiful epic story we now know as “The Lord of the Rings”.
Another writer, Ernest Hemingway didn’t just hang around with the most prolific authors of his time and absorb their brilliance for himself. He became their good friend, offering his help in whatever way he could — For instance, he edited a literary magazine for Ford Madox Ford, and he also even helped Gertrude Stein get published.
The world can feel very small when you’re only focused on your own needs, your own job or craft, or your own suffering. There’s a part of our ego that loves to feel like the world revolves around us, to think that we have more control over our lives than we actually do. It would be even harder to be at rest when you see the world in terms of competition, that if other people are succeeding, it means you aren’t. That’s just a horribly sad way to live.
An antidote to that is to simply be kind, wherever you go, to whoever you meet — To see your fellow human beings as just as deserving as you are of love and all the good things in life.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “The serpent that stings us means to hurt us and rejoices as it does so; the lowest animal can imagine the pain of others. But to imagine the joy of others and to rejoice at it is the highest privilege of the highest animal.”
In German, there’s the word schadenfreude, which means taking delight in another person’s misfortune. It’s just as Gore Vidal put it, that “every time a friend succeeds, you die a little”. And when they suffer, you feel somewhat entertained and you think, “Serves him right.”
There’s another word that we don’t hear as often, and that is mitfreude, meaning “joying with” — It’s where it makes you happy to see other people happy. It’s when you genuinely celebrate the joy and success of other people just as much as you would your own. And this, is the best place in our hearts that must continually work on attaining.
It sounds simple enough in theory, doesn’t it? But when reality hits, it’s probably one of the hardest things to do, because it requires putting aside our ego.
A common and perhaps the largest obstacle to achieving mitfreude is that we harbor resentments, with people that we know, and even those that we don’t know — A stranger cuts you off in traffic, a teammate gives you a half-assed commitment for your assignment, maybe even a parent, if that’s the case.
A way to get rid of resentments is to make the issue at hand smaller by looking into the future. Ask yourself, years and decades from now, would this still matter? As the comedian Stephen Colbert said, “Momentary disappointments can be seen, as my mother used to say when we had a heart-breaker, ‘in the light of eternity,’ and that opens you up to the next moment if you don’t put too much weight on the moment where you are failing right now.” — When you take a good long-term view, there’s a great chance that the thing you’re upset about will be reduced in size. A lot of things that we get angered by every day really aren’t worth getting so worked up on.
Another essential way is to always pray for others, and to pray for that person you can’t stand to get everything you would want for yourself. It’s a universal law of this world that the more you give, the more blessed you feel, and the more you get for yourself too, as opposed to only being fixated on yourself. And when you pray for other people, love takes over, and anger and hatred subside — You’re letting go of a very heavy burden from your heart.
Whatever success I may have had, I’d like to attribute them to my praying for others. Every day, it’s a must for me to mention my most beloved friends and family members in my prayers and what I would want for them. Before an exam, for example, I’d pray for myself, for my friends and everyone who may be taking the same paper — Including, and especially, the particular person or people I might have bad feelings for. And I’d do the same for those who aren’t taking the same exams as I am. Often times things turn out pretty well in the end. Perhaps the coolest thing of all is that no one knows that you’re praying for them — It’s just between you and God.
There are endless routes in practicing mitfreude — Every time you see an opportunity to do good, to be there for others, you take it. My heart was touched when my flip-flops were once stolen after a prayer at the mosque. It was raining heavily outside, and it was a far walk back to the car. Without any hesitation, a good friend of mine offered me his flip-flops, and when I refused, he never stopped bugging me to take them. We also managed to turn the situation into a laughing moment for ourselves while he walked barefooted, even doing the Naruto run in the rain when we crossed the road. Since then, I was inspired to do the same for others. And I hope you are too.
When you see your friends studying hard, buy them some snacks and coffee. Give out your unwavering support for your pal’s new work. Be the voice of comfort and courage when you see someone in distress. It really does go a long way.
But one thing to remember here is that you’re not doing this with the expectation of getting anything in return. You’re doing these beautiful acts because they are beautiful in and of themselves. If you get anything something in return, that’s only a by-product. True joy lies in the doing.