Mental Health Matters: I want to be a better person (opinion)
May 19, 2016
I've decided that I want to be a better person. That's right, I'm making a decision that I want to become a better person. Seriously.
Why? And why now?
Well, I've always assumed I was a good person. You know. Be nice to others. Be respectful. Follow the laws. Know right from wrong, and do what's right. Help others.
When I was a child my teachers said I was a "good" boy, not one to cause trouble. They said I should become a social worker because I liked to help others.
Social worker didn't happen, but being a physician fit the bill. Physician-hood, done properly, provides ample opportunity to help your fellow human beings. And I believe that for 40 years I did a passable job. But it was a "job" and I did get paid for it.
Now I'm retired and no longer have the job of helping people. I miss that.
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It's one of the reasons I took up writing this column. Sharing some of what I learned in my years of doctoring. Also, to be perfectly honest, I rather like to see my name in print.
Recently though, I've taken to asking myself if I could become a better person. The question comes up now for a host of reasons. My wife lost her mother and her only sibling in the last year. Could I have been a better son in law and brother in law? Probably, now that I reflect back on those relationships.
And several people that I consider a friend lost a child in recent months. Could I have been a better friend? Likely. Would it make a difference? I don't know.
Also, at the age of 70-something, it's suddenly occurred to me that there are more years behind me than ahead of me. Better make them count.
So, what should I do? I know. Google it. Turns out that googling, "How to be a better person," yields 51 million hits, and adding in religious sites gets me up over 100 million.
What a cornucopia! If we could all follow all this advice I'm sure the world would be just fine.
I didn't have the time to read what those 100 million sites offered. Assuming you don't either, here are a few examples. Elizabeth Harnell, writing about being a better person for life script says, "Consider your impact on others, think before you speak, serve other people, use your strengths, recognize your weaknesses, take better care of yourself, show your appreciation, and explore your spirituality."
Wikihow advises, "Stop being angry, bathe, breathe in and out while imagining you are letting energy come into you."
Says John Rampton, entrepreneur and investor, "Compliment yourself, don't make excuses, let go of anger, practice forgiveness, and be honest and direct."
Then there's Patrick Kennedy, former congressman and youngest son of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Patrick, struggling emotionally, and seeking to become a better person, has written a painful and inspiring new book about himself and his famous family, "A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction." He's becoming a powerful advocate for improved mental illness and addiction treatment in America.
So, what should I do? How do I apply this information in my own life? Well, first it's important to understand that no two people have precisely the same life experience. So, should you want to become a better person, your job will be different from mine.
Here's my advice to myself:
1. Be more sensitive to the feelings of others. I may think that I'm "right" or "know more," but we all have different life experience, and I need to honor that more and listen more carefully.
2. Be less judgmental. Place more value on what others offer, even if it doesn't sit well with me.
3. Take others more seriously. We all have stories to tell, and they are precious possessions, not to be taken lightly.
4. Reach out to old friends. They won't be there forever either.
5. Stop the "What's up" or "How's it going?" pattern with people. Ask, "How are you?" and mean it. Then, listen and learn.
6. And judge yourself less harshly. Do what you can. That's all you can do.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.