“If one lights a fire for others, it will also brighten one’s own way.”  13th c Buddhist saying

On November 4, the New York Times ran an article entitled Behind Our Anxiety, The Fear of Being Unneeded, co-authored by The Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks, leader of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and author of The Conservative Heart.

In the article, the authors suggest that even though things are improving slowly for people in countries that have been shrouded in hunger and illiteracy, those living in the most industrialized countries—the U.S., Britain, and the countries of Europe—are experiencing levels of anxiety and hopelessness never before felt.

The authors posit that the root cause of this existential hunger is a failure for people to feel useful to others. Those who are giving something of themselves are more likely to feel happy, and, statistics show, to live longer.

Our experience here at Fedcap points to a similar finding. This concept of being needed and, ultimately, finding connection are parts of what drives our staff to keep working in the midst of fast deadlines and often overloaded workdays. We are lucky as we experience the gratification of being needed on a daily basis. And, as we support others in finding economic well-being, we are opening up ways for them to feel more secure, so that, in turn, their own hunger to be needed can be met.

The New York Times article sparked a lot of discussion among my colleagues. It gave us a new angle through which to consider the success of our programs. We talked specifically about our ReServe program, which directly addresses a sense of usefulness for individuals aged 55 and older who may have determined that they want to shift the pace of their workaday lives and focus on helping others. ReServe gives them a vehicle to serve, to feel useful, and to make connections—as dementia coaches for families with a loved one living with dementia, as success mentors, helping foster children get ready for jobs or higher education, or through working with at-risk students who need extra support as they go through school.

As I think about the ways that our organization—or any organization—can help its staff to feel useful, I am struck by one immutable fact: it is only through action and connecting directly with others that we will help satisfy the pangs of uselessness. Conversations are important to raise awareness, but action is where the cure comes. Action can be as subtle as paying really good attention to others—an act French philosopher Simone Weil called “the rarest and purest form of generosity,” or it can be as bold and direct as creating a system or policy or process or structure that brings people together to solve a problem.  In these days of increased social media and technology that allows us to work remotely, finding new ways to connect directly can be more of a challenge, but a challenge well worth solving.

Today I am thinking about the actions I can take that will support connection and usefulness in myself and on behalf of others. What will you do to inspire others’ usefulness? How will you recognize the gifts of others, as the article suggests?

As always, I welcome your thoughts and opinions.

Here is a link to the NYT November 4 article:



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1 Comment

  1. I would agree. I’m certainly hungry to share whatever inspiration I have to offer and have spent the past decade attempting to give back as a public servant. When I worked on a psych unit one of the most popular coping skills on our discharge plans was the hospital volunteer program. Even when we have nothing of monetary or material value to give we can give of our time and serve each other. Turns out that’s a good feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

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