There are two questions I regularly ask myself. I have to ask them regularly because they always point me in the right direction when I feel lost, confused, helpless or, to be quite frank, useless.
How can I help?
The first one is what I ask when I’m unsure how to make myself useful. I might find myself standing in the middle of the living room where, on my right the kids are busy doing kid-like things and, on my left, Marcia is doing Marcia-like things.
They’re all being productive and yet I’m standing in the middle with no place to go. I sometimes liken it to a game of Sharks and Minnows where Marcia and the kids are in their rightful places and I’m the fish out of water.
How can I help?
The answer to that is the best thing I can do in the moment. It takes my surroundings into consideration and forces me to think outside myself so that I can be the most useful to those around me. Should I help with homework? Lend a hand with dinner? Maybe throw a load of laundry in while I have the time? That’s all fair game all fits a purpose.
This is also the question I ask others who are in a difficult spot. How often do we encounter a friend who is up against something awful, say a medical emergency, tight financial trouble, or really anything that requires something even if we don’t know what that thing is?
“Let me know if you need anything at all,” is what I used to say and is often what I hear others say as well. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an earnest offer, even if it doesn’t really offer anything. But what it does do is put the onus on the person who needs help, and that’s likely not an invitation that person is going to take up, unless there is a real clear need.
How can I help?
Notice it’s neither a yes nor a no answer. Notice it’s an active offer. Notice it evokes an immediate reply. That’s the sort of question that serves a higher purpose.
What’s the next right thing to do?
I’m pretty sure I picked this one up when I was watching Frozen 2 or some other movie with the kids. Yet, I found it profound, as kids cartoons tend to sneak into their scripts.
I like this question because, again, it’s neither yes nor no. It requires an answer that scratches deeper than the surface and gets to the core of what I believe is important and worth prioritizing.
Is the next right thing to zone off in a Netflix binge? Maybe. But likely not.
Is the next right thing to sleep in and call off work? Again, maybe. But again, likely not.
Asking myself to figure out the next right thing to do is the most powerful tool I have. It limits the scope so that my natural inclinations of laziness or poor habits are totally irrelevant. Instead, I have to consult outside myself and consider what the next best use of my time and effort is given the current circumstances.
It’s also useful in my own personal moments of duress. It’s easy to find myself in a rut and to continue digging it to deeper depths. But when I realize what’s happening, the best thing I can do to get out of that rut is to start small and ask myself what the next right thing is to do. It shifts the momentum and provides me with something from which I can snowball into something bigger, taller, more substantial than the hole I’ve dug. You’ve gotta start somewhere, right? Why not start with the next right thing to do instead of falling prey to the status quo?
Funny enough, I consider this question the most punk rock thing you can ask in any given moment. It requires an independent answer that’s true to yourself. It might fall counter to what the world sees as “correct.” It most definitely has the power to take on the establishment.
One is weak, but two is stronger
Although I haven’t quite figured it out, I think significant things are possible when these two questions are combined. Sometimes the next right thing to do is to ask how to help. Sometimes helping is the next right thing to do, whatever that may be. I believe it can be taken further than that, but hopefully that conveys the gist.