1. Leave people better than you found them. That’s it.
I was talking with my son last night about physics which, in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit is far from a common topic for us. Anyway, the notion of a Grand Unified Theory came up, which I believe is the physicists’ Holy Grail: one theory that would explain everything about the Universe, including the popularity of Nickelback. It’s a fascinating thought, but in the grand scheme of things would it make much of a difference to our daily lives? Probably not. The Sun would still rise, gravity would still insist that I trip in public a few times per week, and someone would still believe that the Earth is only 7,000 years old.
But the conversation got me thinking about a grand unified theory that would make a tremendous difference to our daily lives, and thus my comprehensive list of one item was born: Leave people better than you found them. It’s not an original idea, but neither is the plot of the latest Paranormal Activity and it’s doing pretty well.
Buddhism captures this idea. The Dalai Lama says: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” Sound advice for leaving people better than you found them.
The Golden Rule gets us part of the way there, too. For those of you who slept through Sunday school, this maxim (which actually predates Christianity by a couple thousand years) states that we should treat others the way that we want to be treated. Hard to argue with that, provided you’re not dealing with a masochist.
The overwhelming majority of us naturally apply the concept to our children. They are delivered to as wiggling, screaming goo factories, after all, so leaving them better than we found them isn’t difficult, at least at first. It takes a long time to raise a kid, though. A lot of life happens between the delivery room and high school commencement. As a parent keeping that focus for 18 years is virtually impossible. We all slip, but most of us try because we truly want our children to leave our homes better than we found them.
With romantic relationships we aren’t quite as careful. We enter them with an implicit contract that we will love and nurture each other, and that works out pretty well until the relationship is on its deathbed for whatever reason. Too often the bitterness and anger are unleashed, the spite and the cruelty. It’s unfortunate because love and compassion are so critical on the way out the door. That’s when that person who was promised love and nurturing most needs kindness; when he or she most needs to be left better than they were found.
Henry Ford brought a rudimentary form of “leave people better than you found them” to industrial America by paying his workers enough to afford the products that they were manufacturing. The cynics among us may point out that this wasn’t an act of generosity but rather simple math: Ford realized that his employees were also his customers. That’s true, but it also makes a very profound point: leaving people better than you found them is good business.
I’ve been walking around with this for a week, and I can’t come up with a scenario where leaving someone better off wouldn’t be a good thing. That’s not to say that my complete list of one thing isn’t without its problems, however, the biggest of which is that “better” is a quality. Unlike quantity, quality is susceptible to opinion and interpretation. Six is always six, but whether six is good or bad, well, who’s to say? It depends.
And so we have parents who smack their kids to prepare them for life’s hard knocks and we have parents who throw parties for participant trophies. Is one right and the other wrong? I have my own strong opinion, but you may not share it. The same holds true for most of our public discourse. I strongly believe that the majority of people who find themselves arguing passionately on either side of a topic like health care, for example, sincerely think they’re fighting to leave their fellow citizens better than they found them.
That’s not a very hopeful statement, is it? If “better” means different things to different people and that’s both inevitable and okay, then what’s the point?
The point is to try; to stop, think, and ask ourselves “will this leave that person (or those people) better than I found them?” Ask yourself honestly and answer sincerely, and if the answer is “yes” then you’re on your way to better sex, happiness, and world peace. You might not get there but at least you tried, and to paraphrase the Dalai Lama, at least you didn’t hurt anybody.