Like the Marines, Dexter, and IT departments the world over, my own life is also guided by codes. I’m not talking about religious moral imperatives or the sorts of slogans you might find by watching five minutes (and you can pick any five minutes) of Dead Poets Society. I mean the sort of code that you can weigh all of your decisions against. A code that is safe from any crisis of faith or change of circumstance. A code which defines you and can be used to measure the success of each day. Ready to be dazzled? Sorry! It doesn’t sing, but here it is:
Don’t Make Anyone’s Day Worse (Including Your Own)
Ta Da! It doesn’t belong to me, but these simple words inform every day of my life: Make everyone’s day better if you can, but never send anyone walking away from you sorry that the interaction occurred. First, do no harm. I know it sounds simple, and like most axioms or proverbs, it is simple. But as I’ve said before, there is a big difference between simple and simplistic, and this code is not simplistic. It’s easier said than done, certainly, but what isn’t?
A Quick Word About Circumstances
Some days are horrible and it’s not anyone’s fault, including your own. If you lose a family member, or your house burns down, or a flood sweeps you out to sea, feel free to say “That just sucks: The End.” If you are a manager and you are ethically required to fire someone, you cannot reasonably be expected to improve their day at the same time. Bad days that aren’t the result of poor choices are just the cost of living. The goal is to reduce the amount of days with poor choices in them. The better you get at this, the more people you will affect positively.
Think about the last “bad” day you had. If you’ve never had a bad day, throw yourself a parade with 1000 elephants. After the parade, think of the last time something “bad” happened in a day that you lived through. Now we’re all on the same page.
Why The Code Works
It works primarily because the majority of positive human actions can be folded under the umbrella. Not making anyone’s day worse lends itself to an incredible array of situations. It is deceptively profound in its applicability. You can live it without realizing it, but once you realize it and aggressively apply it, it is a revelation.
Why it is difficult
Think about the last time you made a choice involving another person. Like most people, whether they’ll admit it or not, I have a love-hate relationship with humanity. You never what sort of craziness might suddenly pour out of the normal-looking person standing in front of you. People are never boring because there are always new highs (and lows) to be discovered. Human beings are the most random and erratic of sounding boards–which is why they can be so exciting.
Because people are unpredictable, trying not to make their days worse is a rigorous exercise in observational skills. You have to listen, watch body language, and empathize. You have to try to guess why they are feeling the way they are, in the moment you make the choice which will affect their day. Of course, if you guess, you can guess wrong, but you will always be better for making the effort. It keeps you tuned up and dialed in.
For example, I read a book about regaining joint mobility by Pete Egoscue. He suggests that if a person were to be stranded alone on a desert island for years, they would eventually lose the range of motion necessary to wave good-bye or hello to someone. Why? There wouldn’t be any reason to wave, because there wouldn’t be anyone to wave to. And so the waving mechanisms–shoulder, forearm, et cetera–fall into disuse. Lack of practice renders them inadequate and rusts them up but good.
It’s similar to the observational skills required to try to improve people’s days. How many people do you know who are great listeners? How many people did you meet today who were completely focused on you during your time together? I didn’t meet very many.
I’m fighting my chronic belief that altruism is dead, but nothing can change the fact that nothing is more immediate to you than you. The most selfless person in the world still has a self. It isn’t natural for me to focus on other people because I am not other people. I am me. In other words, unless I give my human-interaction skill frequent maintenance and scrutiny, they fall into disuse and I default to what’s easy and familiar…me
It isn’t about being manipulative
I don’t try to live the code for the sake of ingratiation or so I can win the World’s Greatest Flatterer and Manipulator trophy.
I do it because it helps me to live better, to feel better, to be more than I was the day before. And when I’m really tuned in to the process, it helps other people as well. How could it not?
So don’t go out and say things you don’t or can’t mean. Don’t tell someone their driver’s license photo is stunning if it’s actually a horror show. Don’t lie. Don’t be an oily salesman of false friendship. Just pay attention to yourself and your effect on others. It’s all upside if you can be vigilant and sincere about it. And for the record, many of my acquaintances will read this and say I’m a hypocrite–and they’ll be right in part. Some days I’m probably a monster. However, I am finally mature enough to realize when I’ve stepped outside my own rules–I’m not always mature enough to correct it, but I usually know when it has happened. This out-of-body-experience ability to watch ourselves from a distance is one thing that separates us from animals.
If memory serves, the first line of Peck’s brilliant The Road Less Traveled is: “Life is difficult.” He’s correct, and I would add that life is difficult enough without being the dark spot in someone else’s day. We all struggle. We all carry loads that can feel unbearable. This is just one way to share the burden.
I’ll be continuing this piece soon in three parts, each which will examine a person or situation where the code is being practiced with great success.
Books I referred to
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Agree, disagree? Have you been living the code without realizing it? Let’s talk in the comments section.