My father taught me a powerful lesson when I was growing up; I was maybe ten years old and we had just finished cleaning out our garage. Left over was a pile of debris of things our family no longer needed; broken toys, a vacuum that had seen better days and miscellanies from our annual garage sale. My parents owned a Volkswagen Minibus—which was great for a family of five, but not so great for schlepping refuge across town to the municipal dump. Fortunately, our neighbor and family friend had a pickup truck that, in cases like these, he would lend to my father. My dad disappeared across the street to the neighbor’s and a few minutes later was backing the truck into our driveway. As I remember, the old pickup had seen better days. It was veteran of hard work, with dents and scratches acquired from past loads, and stippled with mud like powdered-sugar on a Sunday morning waffle. We loaded it up, I hopped in shotgun, my dad cranked the starter, and the old V-8 thundered. I remember driving along and listening to AM radio, hearing the creaking and moans of the weight of our haul and the sound of the flapping tarp that covered our cast of retired odd and ends.
I don’t recall much about our conversation on the way to the dump. It was like typical silence with the occasional jousting over the radio stations. The thing I remember distinctly, however, is what happened after we had unloaded our junk. We were making our way back, when my dad took a detour. We stopped at a car wash; the old “do it yourself” kind that required a hand full of quarters and lots of elbow grease! We took turns scrubbing the crusted dirt off the side walls, windshields, and bumpers of the neighbor’s truck with the automatic foaming brush. My dad would point out spots that I had missed, and I would try again until he approved by rinsing it with the the power-hose. Next to the carwash was a gas station. We headed over and my dad told the attendant to “fill ‘er up.” I think the tank was perhaps a quarter full when we picked it u,p which made this more than a small top off. As we left the service station, and headed back I asked “Why did we wash this old truck and fill it up with gas?” My dad, with his eyes fixed on the road, said in stoic fashion, “You always want to make sure that you leave things in better condition than the way you found them.”
Reflecting back on this story, I think my father’s maxim contains our purpose in life; to leave things a little better than the way we find them. I haven’t always applied this principle; in fact it’s taken me most of my life to see the wisdom behind it. But when I practice it, I like myself better and my confidence grows.
This concept came even clear to me several months ago after reading an article about the bushido or the code that the samurai lived by. The article explained that, to the samurai, the most important thing was honor and with that in mind, their end goal was to “die with one/s honor intact.” Yet in order to die with one’s honor intact, the samurai had to live a life by their code of values, the bushido. Making this a personal application, I do my best to live a life whose purpose is striving to leave things a little better than the way I found them. This is my bushido.
Still, if you’re like me, what you believe and what you actually do are two different things. For example; I have a strong value of honesty, but I’ve lied many times to save my skin; I have a value of loyalty, but I have been disloyal too many times to count. I value courage, and yet hide in fear, not showing up when I was needed most. These are the times when I leave a wake of destruction. History has taught me that being disingenuous to my values is a paper-cut to the soul. One by one, these cuts create a gaping soul-wound of toxic shame.
Each time I act in accordance with my values, shame dissipates, and the soul wounds fade.
I have found the antidote to shame is to practice “leaving things better than I found them”; it’s my living amends, and each time I act in accordance with my values, shame dissipates, and the soul wounds fade. Every person, place and thing that I come in contact with I make it a practice to leave them in “a little better condition.” My old sponsor use to say “if you want good self-esteem, do estimable acts.” And leaving things “better than the way you found them” is, to me, the ultimate estimable act. Imagine what your life look like if you started this practice. Visualize that when you and your partner go your separate ways during the day and you leave him or her in a better state, your children go to bed at night in a place of feeling valued and loved, and at the end of your work day you have made your company a little bit better by the fact that you were there that day. When we take our focus off of ourselves and reduce our ego, we create what’s known as equilibrium.
If you ever watched the movie A Beautiful Mind, you learned the story of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician, who also happened to have schizophrenia. Early in Dr. Nash’s career he discovers the principal of governing dynamics and which was later called the Nash Equilibrium. This principle, simply stated, is that the best outcome happens when each partner has the other partner’s interest at heart as a basis for solving the problem. True leadership is having your partner’s best interest at heart when making decisions to lead. When we seek to meet each other’s needs and each person is acting in the best interest of the other, we create equilibrium. So there you have it: mathematical proof that doing things in the best interest of others has the best outcome. The best outcome is always going to result in making things better than the way you found them.
Ok, easier said than done; believe me I know! That’s why this I call it a PRACTICE. It can start by simply asking the question, “How can I leave this (person, place, or thing) in a better state than I found them.” Like all practices it takes time, but the more often we flex this muscle, the greater our self-esteem becomes and the better chance we have at dying an honorable death. To live a life that I leave thing a little better than the way I found them; this is my greatest hope and purpose.