“If the spirit of one’s fellows is pleased with him, the spirit of the Omnipresent is pleased with him” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 3:10).
What people think of us is not irrelevant. If they like us, the mishna says, the Almighty is pleased with us. This is a little confusing. We work hard at not depending on approval of others for our self-esteem. We constantly battle against peer pressure in order to do what’s right. We don’t want to adjust our behavior based on what other people think – unless it’s to improve, of course.
So what does the above teaching actually mean?
I believe it's telling us something that may seem counterintuitive. If we treat people in a way that is thoughtful and considerate of them – with no ulterior motive of our own – then they will like us. They will want to be with us. They will seek out our company and our counsel.
If we give to others, they will like us. If we focus on ourselves, they won’t.
Just as those who run from honor find that honor runs after them, so too those who don’t seek their own good but the good of others find that their love and approval follows.
It’s very basic. Here’s the stripped bare version: If we give to others, they will like us. If we focus on ourselves, they won’t.
Honesty compels me to assert that it is almost impossible to be completely selfless, for in doing for others there is an inherent personal reward. It gives us pleasure. It seems that, among his other kernels of wisdom, Mark Twain also recognized this point: “The best way to cheer yourself is to try to cheer somebody else up.” He understood how we work psychologically, although the goal here seems self-centered and not selfless.
We don’t know if he understood another important insight from the Torah – that if you start off doing the right thing for the wrong reasons you may end up doing it for the right reasons. Better to do it than wait for the perfectly pure motivation to strike!
So how do we accomplish this goal? How do we become this beloved human being? The first step is to really focus on others. What do they need? What can I provide? What is the best way to provide it? And definitely not – what will I get in return? How will they thank me? Can I hint at the present I want? The interview I’d like them to set up for me? The loan I’d like them to guarantee?
We have to work very hard at just being there for others. We have to work very hard at being a good friend. Are we listening to them with our full attention or waiting for the pause in the conversation so we can talk about our own lives? Do we think hard and carefully before we give advice, doing our best to ensure we are focused on what’s appropriate for them in their situation and not our own preferences and biases? Do we network for others – making business connections, setting them up on blind dates, arranging a dinner with potential new friends?
There’s an underlying theme here: being other-centered. A world about me is a very lonely place. A world about others is rich and fulfilling. The secret to happiness is not concentrating on yourself and your needs; it’s focusing on everyone around you that will put a real smile on your face – and theirs.