You Can Always Do More

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A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were discussing the devastation in Haiti.  He told me he thought he should go down there to help out—but that he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.  His heart went out to the people suffering there, he said, but apparently not enough to get him to hop on a plane.

I asked him what was stopping him.  He thought about it for a moment and then said:  “I don’t have anything left to give.”  His answer took me by surprise.  I thought his reasons would have been the same as mine:  it would have been too disruptive to his life here, too frustrating to go down and be ineffective as a physician without adequate infrastructural support, and too personally uncomfortable or even risky.  But what he meant was simply this:  he was too tired.

He’s spent most of his adult life caring not just for the sick but the poor sick, teaching scores of medical students and residents to be tomorrow’s doctors, volunteering in a free clinic in his spare time once a month to care for the even poorer sick, raising his children, loving his wife, family, and friends, giving money to charity, serving on multiple committees to improve our hospital’s functioning, all while trying to take good care of himself (by eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep to prevent himself from being so irritable or tired that he ever harms the very people he’s dedicated himself to helping).  His life felt to him utterly full, both with service for others and to himself, and he felt he had no energy or time to do more.

Yet what drew my attention was what he didn’t say, but what I sensed he felt:  that is, guilty for not going.  And when I asked him about it, he admitted he does feel every time he hears a call for help that he should answer it personally, even though he knows he can’t possibly answer every one.  Which got me thinking about people who care about helping others and take action to do it on a regular basis, how they get to enjoy several benefits from leading their lives that way (which you already know about if you’re one of them), but how almost universally they seem to feel that no matter how much they are doing they’re not doing enough.

This may just be a burden capable people who care about others have to carry.  The truth, of course, is that most of us can always do more.  My friend could have gone to Haiti.  I could have gone to Haiti.  We both could have made the choice to stay there for several weeks, or even for the several years (or perhaps decades) it will take to rebuild the country, pausing only to eat, drink, go to the bathroom, and sleep, dedicating all other waking moments to helping whoever by chance or design thrust themselves in front of us.

Some people do actually live their lives this way.  Gazing at them, I feel awestruck.  But I suspect even they—especially they—constantly feel they could do more.  Perhaps this is because there really is no theoretical limit to what a person’s “best” is (barring, of course, true physical and physiological constraints)—that even if you accomplish what you set out to do, you can always argue that you could or should have set out to accomplish more.

Yet no one person can singlehandedly save the entire world.  Wherever you are, no matter how strenuously you exert yourself, you’re not—and literally can’t be—anywhere else exerting yourself there.  If my friend went to Haiti, he could certainly do good.  But then he wouldn’t be doing good here.

I’m certainly not suggesting if you feel the call you shouldn’t go to Haiti.  Thank goodness many do and are going.  The suffering there exists on an unprecedented scale and clearly requires international intervention.  Nor would I want my reasoning above to be viewed as an excuse to do less.  But I am arguing that if we already focus on helping others as best we can (and obviously many of us don’t) then we need to realize our cups will never be entirely full—that we really always can do more—but that giving too much will at some point compromise our ability to give at all.  I’m saying that as you challenge yourself to do more to help others, be gentle with and forgiving of yourself.  The cup may never be full, but for those who take action to help others when they can, it’s always filled to some degree.

Next WeekTrying New Things

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  • I suppose I shall feel guilty after i write this, but i gave up feeling guilty long ago. I got so used to helping people in my support group for folks w/mood disorders and saw that each person had to help him or herself and many did not choose to do so, though most did. Then I searched for how to help the Haitians. Any way would do. Couldn’t find any personal way which would not be just anonymous money sent down. Two days ago i went to a funeral. Upon leaving I spoke to a very dark-skinned woman who I thought might be from Africa. She was from Haiti but worked here. She gave me the address of her catholic church here which would mail my check directly to Haiti. By serendipity, I had found my personal way to help Haiti.

  • I suspect all caring people find it tricky business to figure out how to allocate their limited resources—even if the only limit they accept is that there are only 24 hrs. in a day.

    Like Ruth, I also find no value in guilt. I’ve come to accept that I do the best I can do every day. It may not be someone else’s best. It may not even be the best I “think” I can do. But it is the best I have to give at that moment.

    I am able to sleep well at night with no regrets because I know that when I can do more, I will; when I can do better, I will. And tomorrow is always another day. I am able to let that be good enough.

    This way of thinking required that I long ago let go of the notion that I was sent here to singlehandedly save the world. We’re all in it together, and, as such, it has to be a team effort. All teams know the importance of giving a tired player some time out on the bench to rest, so when that player gets back in the game they can contribute at their highest level.

    Alex, a friend who enjoys your blog sent me your link. Wonderful reading here. Thank you.

    AuthorMomWithDogs: Thanks for your comment. I think the team analogy is…well…more than an analogy. It’s the way it is.


  • Those of us that can see the bigger picture will always be aware of how we fail to live up to what needs to happen for others in desperate circumstances. My personal belief is to make small ripples that extend out to the world at large and to know that I can make a difference doing that. I am not in a position to drop everything to go somewhere like Haiti to help, but I can make a difference by giving hope to someone that may be able to, if not this time, then some other.

    The axiom is that charity begins at home, which I truly believe, as it seems evident that even a small gesture could have a larger impact. If I can help someone feel good, then they will, in turn help someone else feel good, by doing whatever it is they can to achieve that result, and so on.

    We tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do things that we are just not able to do because we see that something needs doing. We must remember that the sphere of influence is larger than we think, and as long as we have positive influence then we are doing all we can to help the world at large.

    I am not a doctor, but I imagine that as one there can be tremendous pressure to save the world and the people in it. It is part of the mandate after all. But the life you save in your town may go on to save a larger group half a world away, and that, to me, is even a better place to be.

    So, the point is, to not beat yourself up for not going where you MIGHT be needed but to stay where you KNOW you are. We all have limits, and there is absolutely no need to be competitive about things such as this, that is really not the right motivation in my view.

    Keep up the good work. I enjoy these posts very much. They have helped me confront some of my own issues and problems with good results, which is, of course, your small ripple!


    Su: I love that image of a small ripple spreading outward. I completely agree that even if we affect only one person, that one person might go on to affect others similarly…or maybe even the entire world.


  • This is a terrific post and something all of us should be thinking about, but I do know one thing. That there is an obligation to take of oneself personally, so that we are then strong enough to help others. I like to use the analogy of the parent and child on an airplane when the oxygen masks drop down. If the parent doesn’t put theirs on first, they may not be conscious enough to help their child. Enough said, but thanks for the reminder. I was sitting here still working at 9:20 on a Sunday night when I could not resist reading your post from my email. Madness of another kind. 🙂


  • I love this post and I agree that it’s good to both challenge ourselves to do more but also be sure we’re taking care of ourselves and those we’re responsible for too. I’ve come up with a practice that challenges me to be generous and that has never led to me regretting a generous act. Whenever I have the impulse to be generous in some way (give some money to Haiti, give something I own to someone who’s admired it) I don’t let me talk myself out of it. It’s amazing to watch all the justifications I can come up with for not following though on that initial impulse to be generous. But I make it a practice to follow through and it’s never failed to be a win-win situation.

    Toni: I like your point very much, that our first impulse is to be generous and that we often talk ourselves out of it. Hadn’t considered that but it’s right on the money.


  • Money is the most useful way to help—unless you have skills that can be put to immediate use and your own presence won’t be a burden on the infrastructure. Also, remember that the help must continue. Nothing in Haiti can be fixed soon. Partners in Health has been there for a long time, has been able to go into action rapidly, and will be there in the long run.

  • Sometimes when we cannot help in a physical sense it is enough to send good energy out to those that are in need and see what path opens to us and them. Helping another doesn’t always have to take a physical form.

  • Thanks for initiating this wonderful discussion—again. As I read your post a recent experience came to mind, a healing of sorts. Several months ago I felt despair and sadness about the seemingly unending and deepening problems in the world. The despair came from a belief buried in my sad heart: My Love is Not Enough. Uncovering that helped me recognize that my love is enough; it is good enough. And a renewed trust that however I act on that love, it has impact, perhaps in ways I can not know and don’t always need to know.

  • There is need everywhere, all the time, often in our own backyards, with our neighbors, with our friends. Those needs are not on CNN in vivid photos. All help is valuable, and it doesn’t have to be a long commitment, it can be as simple as sitting for a half hour with a person who is sick. We need to attach value to all the small good deeds we do everyday.

  • I first recognized this sentiment while thinking about Paul Farmer in Haiti a couple of years ago. As chronicled in Mountains beyond Mountains, he’s one of the few that really selflessly give 24 hours a day. Many are inspired by this book, and want to be more like Paul Farmer, but I ultimately felt sorry for the guy. He’s says he’s not unhappy doing what he’s doing, and he has no expectations that others should give as tirelessly, but I know I would be.

    I think inspiring others is really one of the best ways we can do good. For me, I’m inspired by real stories I can relate to, the flawed hero. When I’m feeling healthy and happy myself I can be much more inspiring than when I’m worn out from trying to do too much.

    My two cents, thanks for a great post.

    Drew: I was thinking about Paul Farmer when I wrote the post. I wholeheartedly agree that inspiring others is one of the best ways we can do good.


  • As I go about my daily routine, sometimes it strikes me that the ordinary life I lead (raising a family, operating a small business with my husband, volunteering for schools and youth sports teams…) is so mundane as to be virtually invisible. What sustains me is this thought:

    “We are not here to do the great things, but rather the small things with great love.”

    That famous quote, from Mother Theresa, is the key in resolving the question, “How much is enough?” For although time, energy, knowledge, and money are all finite resources, love is infinite.

    Ruthanne: Thanks for the quotation. Really great.


  • Alex, I like the focus on being easier on oneself. Most of your posts are about holding oneself to a higher standard. It’s good to see that there are times when that doesn’t apply.

  • Not relevant to the meat of your post but relevant to Haiti and any future disasters. Often the relief efforts are hampered by people who jump on a plan to go down and help. Well-meaning volunteers who don’t know much about the local conditions may find themselves unprepared and may actually add to the problem. Even organizations which specialize in relief may be less able to use/allocate resources effectively than an organization that was on location before the disaster. (An organization running a hospital before the disaster is in the best position to know what it needs to get its services back up an running again in the wake of the disaster, and in doing so is best able to provide urgent care to the sick/injured.) My point is that sometimes “less is more” and for anyone who wasn’t previously trained in relief aid or familiar with Haiti the best thing they can do is to donate money to the appropriate group. The “more” is in finding which group is best able to turn that money around and use it to get the help to those in need.

    Elly: Excellent points, all. Thanks for making them.


  • Some years ago a friend of mine was freed from a destructive personal situation and in gratitude decided she should go to India to work with Mother Theresa. My friend wrote a letter to her, asking for permission to come. Mother Theresa responded that she should stay where she was and do what was needed in the community in which she had been placed; that her mission was right before her eyes, she just needed to open them and see it.

    Of course Mother Theresa was right, and within a year my friend found the work that she continues to do today. She is perfect for the mission and has changed our small part of the world for the better for the past 20 years while continuing to care for her loved ones and herself.

    My friend is my inspiration; I stopped castigating myself for what I cannot do and started using the abilities I have in the service of those in need in my community. Through the ripple effect mentioned above, Mother Theresa’s service has improved the lives of numerous people in a part of the world she never saw. What an amazing world!

    Thank you for your posts—another service to a community which needs your input.

    Jean: That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing it.


  • I really liked this post and the comments posted afterward. My admiration and heart goes out to those who give and give and then give some more. When I was younger, I had a full-time private practice as a psychotherapist, and I worked one day a week in an elementary school, and did volunteer talking to high school students about their fears and concerns. I loved and I miss the energy I used to have. Today, my health is slipping, but I have, as always, made an almost conscious decision to make as many of my interactions in the world as pleasant as possible, the checker in the supermarket, the bank teller, the helpful folks at the pharmacy—all these people are folks I like to share a smile with. Besides, it makes ordinary life more fun. Thus, when I have a problem, I often get much more help than I would if I didn’t try to be pleasant. I give money to those folks stricken with disasters, but I try to make life a pleasure every day. It doesn’t always work, but breathing and reading blogs like this help.

  • I LOVE this thread and every single one of the posts—I agree with them all!!! It is so easy to be negatively affected by all the problems in the world and our very strong desire to fix EVERYTHING TODAY in a very grandiose fashion!!! This kind of thinking can very easily lead to feelings of overwhelm and despondency which are crippling and unconstructive. I love Lil’s reminder to be kind to everyone we meet and I love Su’s reminder of the ripple effect. On the days we feel we don’t have any more time or money or energy to give, these simple gestures really are ENOUGH. And they sustain us (also via the ripple effect) to give more time, money and energy when we can. Reading this post was a very serendipitous event for me; I’m very grateful. 🙂

  • Thanks for this article. Yes there is always something in this world that we can do help others and I certainly related to the feelings of guilt and wanting to be do all that we can in the face of human need. I love the perspective that if we are helping in one place, we are not helping somewhere else.

  • […]  I just read a good blog post by Alex Lickerman on the blog, Happiness In This World-Reflections of a Buddhist Physician .  The title of the post is  “You Can Always Do More”.  I want to thank him for […]

  • I want to thank you for this post. I am a medical student in my last year, choosing a specialty and really reflecting on how I want to practice medicine. I keep coming to the same thought—I want to do everything. I want to prevent and cure cancer, I want to help the healthy and the very sick, I want to heal both psychological and physical disease and ills. I am slowly coming to the realization that, while I can strive for this, I will not be able to fully help every one of my patients, single-handedly. I have also reflected that sometimes the best help is to refer a patient to someone who may be more qualified to help them better. It is also strangely comforting to think that I will feel this pull to do more for the rest of my life. I think it allows me to strive for a balance where I am doing the most I can while still feeling fulfilled, instead of thinking that there is an end goal of having truly done everything I can and should do. Thank you again for an especially relevant post for me at this time in my life.

  • I strongly agree with this article. There is always something more to do (like there is more than enough movies to see, books to read, recipes to try, activities, etc. to fulfill a whole life). We cannot do everything. We cannot be everything. It is also our life, so we have to also take care of ourselves. Else, we cannot help others.

    However, if the size of the impact you have is important for you, then you might want to choose to do the things that create the most value for others for your time. That, of course, also imply to say NO to a lot of stuff. It is simply a choice and you try to do the best one.

    An article that remind me of this value creation concept is “Adding Value” by Ole Eichhorn:

  • Alex,
    Just stumbled upon your blog (quite literally) and found this post resonated with me. I think all capable, giving people worry they are not answering the call for help often enough. Of course, there are those professions who help others nearly everyday, not just in the face of tragedy or disaster (physicians being one, teachers another) and society does not give them the wreaths of thanks they very much deserve. There are an infinite number of ways to serve!


    Jen: So true. Glad to have you.


  • I stumbled on your website, and have been impressed with your insight, and the clarity with with you are able to distill complicated issues into simple concepts.

    However, after reading several articles I had to comment on this post. You struck truly to the heart of me with this issue, as I have struggled to find a personal balance with this. I am a nurse practitioner in a small rural community of 600 people, I live, send my kids to school, buy groceries, and worship in the small community I practice in. I find it very difficult to put limits on where my practice intersect with my personal life. I have set some limits; I do not refill prescriptions in the grocery store, and I will not discuss your test results with you at the Christmas concert. You need to call my office, which is always politely reinforced. However, at times I feel bad, or guilty about not always being available to the community. This post with its gentle encouragement helps me feel confident that my boundaries are appropriate, and that I need not feel bad; in fact, I may be doing a greater service to the community by being consistent and strictly maintaining confidentiality.

    Thank you for your insight! I am impressed, and will be back to read more!

    Lisa: I’m glad you found my post helpful. Your experience as a caretaker is quite common, I think. We often feel more guilty about what we don’t do and the boundaries we set than good about what we do accomplish. I think you’re right on target when you say you’re “doing a greater service to the community by being consistent and strictly maintaining confidentiality.”