I was reading a journal the other day where the author was describing ways to tap into self-compassion. In it, she suggested that we recall “a benefactor moment, an instance in life ‘when we felt seen, heard and recognized by someone who showed us genuine regard and affection.'” She was quoting Thupten Jimpa, PhD, adjunct professor of religious studies at McGill University and author of A Fearless Heart.
By way of example, the author suggested we think of a time when we were speaking during a big work meeting and a colleague begins talking over us. In the moment we begin to question ourselves, wondering if our point had value. But when he’s finished, “your boss redirects the conversation back to you, because she wanted your take. Benefactor moments like these make us feel valued.”
The suggestion was that when you question your sense of purpose or usefulness, call upon those moments from your past as reminders that you do have value.
In The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, author Jack Kornfield tells the story of a high school history teacher who provided an entire class with a benefactor moment they would never forget. On a day when the class was fidgety, she stopped mid-lesson and asked her students to take out a piece of paper and pencil. She then wrote the names of all 26 members of the class on the blackboard. After the students copied the names on their papers, she asked them to use the rest of the period to write one thing they liked or admired about each of the other students. Then she collected the papers. Several weeks later, when the students were again unruly, she stopped the class and handed each of them a sheet of paper with their name at the top and the 26 things their classmates had written about them pasted below. They became quiet, then began to smile as they read how other classmates described what they admired in them and their value to the world.
A few years later, this teacher attended the funeral for one of those students. He had been killed in the Gulf War. The student’s mother came up, with tears in her eyes, and showed the teacher a piece of paper, folded many times. It was one of the few things the military recovered from his body. The paper that the soldier carried to his death was the list of the 26 things his classmates had said they admired about him. Several other students joined the conversation, pulling their individual lists out of their purses and wallets, or mentioning that it was framed on their kitchen wall, or saying that they had incorporated the list into their wedding vows.
Benefactor moments. When someone saw the good in us and valued us. Or when we see the good and the valuable in others and ennoble them through praise, a comment, recognition, a simple gesture, or a note. The Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela once said: “It never hurts to think too highly of a person; often they become ennobled and act better because of it.”*
I’ve thought about benefactor moments several times during this coronavirus crisis, as so many of us are facing new realities and perhaps questioning our place in this new world. We may need, as the author of the article suggests, to think about those times when someone else was a benefactor to us. We may also see others who are struggling, perhaps questioning their value or future, and we may be in positions where we can be benefactors to them. Both are important.
The singer Iris DeMent recently highlighted the work of another benefactor. She used the Mandela quote in her short remembrance about the late John Prine last week in Rolling Stone magazine. DeMent said,
“We all know that John ennobled the characters in his songs. Any of us lucky enough to have seen one of his shows knows he also did this for his audience. I, for one, happen to know he did it at truck stops and Dairy Queens, too. John was one of the all-time great ennoblers of others.”
How did he do it? By caring enough to look at everyone he met until he saw what was noble. Given Prine’s unique gifts as a songwriter, he then “wrapped us up in melodies and sung us back to ourselves.”
We may not be able to see what is noble in someone and then come up with lyrics that get quoted across generations at the dinner table or around guitar pulls in the music room. But we can ennoble someone — we can be a benefactor — by caring enough to look. By reaching out to talk. By seeing something of value. By dignifying those around us. By honoring our fellow travelers through this world.
By saying hello in there.
Stay safe and healthy this week.
More to come…
*We need to recognize the elephant in the room. Sometimes people in power are so enveloped in sociopathic or narcissist tendencies that we endanger others by speaking too highly of them, especially when the praise is less than genuine; is obsequious and sycophantic in nature. These authoritarians are not ennobled by praise. Instead, they use flattery to feel enabled to tell more lies to make themselves look good or to gain more power and a political advantage.
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