Sunday, November 6, 2011

Leave it better than you found it

When I was a boy, my Father used to take me camping in the mountains of Idaho and Oregon. As kind of an awkward little kid, I genuinely enjoyed the outdoors, animals, and nature in general—they were much less quick to judge than it seemed my human fellows were. It was one of the few places I felt genuinely free to be myself.

My Father was a tried-and-true outdoorsman. I think what I liked best about his perspective was that in many ways, he regarded himself as a guest in the wilderness: there was no sense of entitlement, there was no sense of needing to master his universe. Nature was to be admired for it’s awe-inspiring beauty and enjoyed—and when we left, our responsibility was to leave it a little bit better than when we arrived.

In the moment, it was frequently difficult for me to appreciate this principle, because for me it often meant picking up not only my garbage, but sometimes the waste others had left behind before me. But in retrospect, it was a great lesson and an even better example—a goal to leave a place improved as a result of having been there.

As I grew and developed my own sense of this principle, I began to realize that it not only applies to nature, but to our fellow humans. When looked at through this lens, we begin to realize that, with every soul we touch, we have the opportunity to leave it a little happier, a little lighter, and a little bit better off. Likewise, if we fail to recognize this possibility, we can leave behind emotional litter, spiritual baggage, hurt and pain.

I like to think of the souls of those around me like a covering of freshly fallen snow on a hillside. When I walk through the snow, each action I take leaves an impression, a footprint—even the gentlest press of my hand leaves a mark in the blanket of white. If I run wildly and carelessly, I can kick up dirt beneath the surface, and smear the pure snow into an ugly brown slush. Or, I can tread gently, and leave behind a set of soft footprints that mark where I’ve been. And if I so choose, I can lay down, spread my arms and legs, and even make a snow angel in my wake—leaving behind an impression that will often make others smile.

Likewise, each interaction I have with others leaves an impression or a mark; and it’s largely up to me to define whether that impression will leave them impaired—or leave them better than I found them.

It’s easy to understand the impact this principle when we think of the large, life changing circumstances we watch those around us face, and we reach out to offer our support and love: a death in the family, a lost job or financial misfortune, a divorce or painful loss of someone loved. A more challenging—but perhaps even more worthwhile—application is in the small, every day interactions we have with others that, to us, seem insignificant or even meaningless.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see this in action. A friend of mine was having a particularly difficult day. It was, indeed, a day that would try the most patient of souls: On her way to take her daughter to school, the tire on her car went flat, and she had to call for roadside support. Her daughter was late, and my friend frenzied from the very beginning of her day. Later, on her way back from dropping off her daughter, she inadvertently ran a stop sign and received a traffic citation from a police officer. Then, as if that weren’t bad enough, when she stopped for lunch at a small local deli, she realized that she had no cash or credit cards in her wallet when she went to pay for her lunch.

While she stood at the cash register on the brink of tears, from behind her she heard a calm, kind voice: “It’s okay, I’ll cover it. Let me do this for you.”

And with that, a day of frustration turned into a day my friend would quite possibly remember for the rest of her life. But instead of recalling the painful difficulties of her day, she’ll look back in gratitude at how another was willing to leave her a little better than they had found her.

The eight dollars or so spent by the stranger behind my friend was a relatively small gesture on behalf of the benefactor. The stranger had no idea of the kind of day my friend had faced, but simply saw a fellow in need—and stepped in to do something about it. Indeed, the eight dollars was a fairly small amount of money—but the impact felt by my friend was priceless.

Our gestures to leave someone better than we found them need not be grandiose; it is often in the little interactions where impact is felt most deeply. And those opportunities are all around us, each and every day—it doesn’t take a flat tire, a traffic ticket, or an empty wallet to leave someone better off.

All it takes is the willingness to pay a small kindness to another—a smile, a compliment, or simply holding the door open for the person behind you. And, when we focus on what we can give vs. what we can get, our whole perspective on life changes, and we become more grateful and generous—breaking free of the natural human inclination of doing kind and generous things in order to get something back. When we perform a loving act with no expectations—when we seek to leave someone better than we found them—we begin to reap the true reward of giving.

Today, I will put unconditional love into action, and seek to leave someone better than I found them. When I give freely, and expect nothing in return, I always receive more than I give. Every good and loving gesture I manifest soothes my soul, and contributes to a healthier human family.

And then, things get better for all of us.

Will you leave someone better than you found them today?


  1. This post really touched me. Even though you don't know me, in this way you have left me better than you found me.

  2. I. LOVE. THIS. I like your litter analogy. Not only can we refrain from leaving behind emotional trash in other peoples hearts, but we have an opportunity to pick up the emotional litter that has been left by others, healing broken hearts and lifting hands that hang down. Thanks for posting this.