Is Your Happiness Bound By Those You Serve?

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Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Powerful words from an extraordinary man.

But, I struggle with whether there is also absolute truth in them.

In life, we rise highest by helping others rise. This makes sense. We reach our greatest potential when we inspire the greatest potential in those around us. And, when we reverse the equation, we are elevated beyond what we thought possible when nurtured by those who’ve already achieved that to which we aspire.

But, what of those who refuse to budge? What if I cannot move you, despite years of effort? What if I cannot lift you up?

Can I then “never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be?

Am I duty bound never to walk away or suffer the demise of my own potential?

Doesn’t that shift control over my joy, my aspirations to you?

Or, is this not about helping those who are given the option to transcend circumstance, but refuse?

Curious what you think…

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32 responses

32 responses to “Is Your Happiness Bound By Those You Serve?”

  1. That’s a great question. I believe that we are bound to the people in our lives, but only when there is an emotional connection. We can let go of this connection and feel free, but only when we separate them from us.

    This isn’t easy and I’ve tried this with friends and it’s hard. Most times I can’t separate my feelings from my friends. I am bound. I have learned to create a small buffer zone that allows me not to get too attached, but also stay close to the people in my life.

    I don’t ever truly want to cut myself off from others. It would be too isolating.

    By reframing how I look at my external world I try to use the hardships (my own and friends) as a way to make myself stronger. By getting down for a short time then taking time to reflect and find the positive I then push myself out of the pain and back into happiness. In theory it works great, but it can be tricky and has backfired on me, sending me into a depression. All a part of having friendships and developing myself as a better human being.

  2. Hiro Boga says:

    “Ought” is one of those words that’s problematic because it’s prescriptive rather than descriptive. The first sentence and the last, in this quote by Martin Luther King, reflect the truth of my experience. It’s the “ought” sentence in between that doesn’t ring true to me.

    At the level of soul and spirit, we are all one, and in that wholeness, there is no differentiation. In that wholeness, there is no separation either, and it’s beliefs about separation that give rise to stuckness of various kinds.

    Which brings us to the other, incarnate end of the continuum of our beings. Here we are sovereign beings with the responsibility and the privilege of choosing how we are going to live. Sovereignty means that if my friend or neighbor or the person down the street chooses to a life of hunched-over constriction or simply of unadventurous blandness, they are free to do so. In the long view of their soul’s journey, this may be exactly what they need to experience.

    Their choices create energy fields that will act in different ways on the vibrational reality of the world around them, but these aren’t strong enough to impede my own ability to make evolutionary choices for myself. At least, not in our reality, where we aren’t operating, for the most part, at the level of bare survival.

    So no, I don’t believe you can place your joy or the fulfillment of your own soul’s purpose in anyone else’s hands. Your joy and purpose contributes to the energy fields of joy and purpose in the world. That too is your gift and your responsibility.

    Thanks so much, Jonathan, for this very thought-provoking post.


    • I agree with you Hiro about the “ought”. For me the issue with the word is the degree of hubris inherent in it. Can we ever truly know what we “ought” to be? I certainly can’t claim to know what you ought to be and my confidence (stated or not, acted upon or not) in your capacity whatever that may be is my contribution to our inter-relatedness.

      I also believe in removing barriers that may be in my but not about others. One person’s barrier is another person’s support mechanism. That is where it gets tricky…

      • Auburn says:

        In 12-step work, we get better at discerning who is ready/desperate to change and save their lives and who isn’t. Both are hanging by a thread but only one is honestly holding their hand out for help. Who gets my time and attention? One of my guides taught me how distinguish between “prospects” and “projects” when it comes to dying alcoholics. Prospects can get well and turn around and help others. Projects go on and on.

        • Auburn, if you have pointers about separating prospects and projects I’d find that fascinating and helpful. That kind of insight is really practical for my work. (I tend to operate on intuition balanced with experience, muddied by logic . . .)

  3. Lissa Boles says:

    What a post! And dude, that quote’s going in a file folder entitled ‘Words I Heart’

    I’ve learned that sometimes the biggest – and best – boost I can offer is none at all accept the unwavering belief they have it (whatever ‘it’ is) in them to boost themselves.

    Backing up, however, means genuinely acknowledging they’ve had the power all along and any over-exertion on my part was more about me than about them. Those subtle lines of interconnectedness are oh so easy to make co-dependentedness, ain’t they?

    BTW – interesting book by Tom Rath called Vital Friends put a spin in my thinking about all this a couple years back. You might find it interesting, especially sinces its backed by a whole whack of Gallop Research data.

  4. Sally says:

    This is a very interesting concept, one I too have questioned extensively. My take is that this is a metaphor with a ‘global’ perspective, rather than a ‘personal’ one on one meaning; husband/wife, President/employee, parent/child. There comes a point when we as individuals are not responsible for anothers happiness, dreams, aspirations, and would it not, is it not a tragedy when one gives their whole life over to trying to rescue/help those that by choice or at least by their actions don’t want to be helped?

    I belive the connotation of this concept is that by being ALL that I can be, I do effect change, vibrational change, which in turn might effect change in another….I may not even know the recipients. Something as simple as calling the check out clerk by name, smiling at random people; notice what happens, the clerk smiles at the sound of their own name and random people smile back.

    It’s been said by many a wise man and woman that when we let our light shine we unconsciously give others the permission to do the same. One light ingnites another and then another, and so on and so on and so on.

    Thanks for your ever insightful and very meaningful work.

  5. Cathy says:

    Cool post — and, my, what kick-ass responses! You have some rockin’ people reading your blog!

    My take on this concept is that it’s more of a reminder or acknowledgment that we are all interconnected than as an admonishment that we are “all duty bound never to walk away or suffer the demise of [our] own potential”.

    The situation in Haiti comes to mind as an example of what I mean. There are degrees of helping — kudos to those who have come to the island to give medical assistance, dig out, etc. etc. But those who give money, pass the word along, give succor to friends/neighbors who may be waiting at home worrying about other loved ones in Haiti — those people are making a difference, too, albeit in a smaller way. Which is just as well — we couldn’t have hundreds of thousands of people descending on Haiti to help out.

    As we live according to our own highest ideals, and as we help others rise to the degree we can, I believe we are living MLK’s words.

    And, in most my spiritual (or romantic?) sense, I believe even the stragglers who resist budging will eventually budge and transcend their circumstances, being raised with all who work to be their best selves and shine the light for those whose lives we touch.

  6. Judy Martin says:

    Great conversation piece.

    I think attachment to outcome of any kind will likely land you in dog house. A teacher once told me – give everything you can – teach all that you know – share – but don’t ever look at who is taking and you’ll never be disappointed.

    My mom always told me – we elevate ourselves as we elevate others, no matter the outcome. People don’t budge until they’re ready. I don’t think we can beat ourselves up if we step up to the plate – regardless of outcome. We are only responsible for our own happiness. But it doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying.

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  8. For me, it’s all about choices. We have to the choice to be happy, or not and we have the choice to receive the help from another, or not.

    I can not be limited by the least of them, but only by how I choose to live my life.

  9. Jeffrey Tang says:

    I think there’s a very serious problem with tying your happiness and self-esteem to the performance and circumstances of others. It’s like saying we all ought to be unhappy because we have yet to create a perfect world for everyone.

    We help others in order to create a better world, and in respect of their humanity – but our happiness and self-esteem has to come from ourselves; it cannot be dependent in any way on what others do or don’t do. After all, it’s called SELF-esteem for a reason …

    An interesting question is to what extent our feeling of interconnectedness is inborn, and to what extent it’s instilled into us as artificial social values.

  10. We can’t know the difference between someone who refuses and someone who is unable.

    Among those who are unable, we can’t tell the difference between those who could become able, and those who could not.

    Part of our divine nature is to be able to live with paradox. We must be wholeheartedly concerned about everyone around us. We must not allow that wholehearted concern to determine who we are or how we live.

    But, in the end, I don’t think the quote is about who’s responsible for whom; it’s a simple statement of fact: what we do affects others. It’s not a choice, it’s a fact.

  11. Werner says:

    You cannot change those who do not want to change. Focus your energies only on those who want your help – who want to change.

    You can recognize who is who by the progress a person makes (or the lack thereof) with the help you’ve given.

    • “You can recognize who is who by the progress a person makes”

      Only if that progress is manifested in some physical way. If they’re changing internally, we won’t necessarily see it. Most thought change is invisible until the final stages, where actions change to resolve cognitive dissonance.

      Not saying we should spend time where it’s not warranted, just that it’s really easy to get frustrated and give up because we don’t see what we expected.

      • Werner says:

        @ Joel

        Point taken. Most people are unwilling to change. Real change is difficult. It takes them out of their comfort zones and away from familiarities.

  12. I guess the key question that I would ask here is this: “What does Dr. King refer to by “you”?”

    I cannot even begin to analyze this phrase until I know the context from which it came from. That is why I am not going even begin analyzing it.

    However, I could respond to your interpretation of the analysis. We all are different and it futile to think that our actions can move everybody. Our actions will best resonate with those around us that need inspiration and help in their life. Others will remain unaffected. It is because we are all different and walk different paths in life.

    Moreover, we are all at different stages in our life, which means that your influence on other people might have no effect until they experience other things in life which will enable them to understand your thoughts and intentions.

    And the last point. Trying to change others is pointless. They will not change until they want to or the circumstances require so. All we can do is give them the tools and the ideas needed to carry out a change if they do decide to take the steps and act on our words.

    Focus on those that want and need help as opposed to spread yourself thin over everybody.


  13. I’m reminded of this quote by Ayn Rand:

    “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

    I like her argument that our moral purpose is to do what it is we need to do in order to be happy, and in doing so, we provide the most benefit we can to the world.

    I’m not sure however, that my game depends on the games of others.

  14. matthew says:

    Does there need to be absolute truth in the words? I think that there may actually be…the case was brought up about the meaning of “ought” and “you”. I think both are critical to understanding this quote. The case of the matter is that Martin Luther King, Jonathan Fields, and me, Matthew Stillman, for that matter, or anyone else is a collection of bad ideas. Despite any great things or thoughts we have done or considered they are all limited. Is what you “ought” to be limited? No, we all aspire to unlimited – totally free. Now we often see that freedom in the context of “me” but King is offering a perspective from the other side of the proverbial looking glass. Who are you when you are unlimited? Who is this “other” when you are unlimited? Does the nature of that core separation we experience (I vs. You) change when we transcend the limitations that we consider ourselves? I would say that it does.

    So your point “In life, we rise highest by helping others rise…” Is all well and good from the perspective of duality. And that certainly has a place. But is it the ultimate reality?

    To your point “What if I cannot lift you up?”…this question sits on the shoulders on the core notion of a) a goal b) the two of us and c) conditional happiness. That is a bridge too far if you ask me.

    The answer to “Can I then “never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be? Am I duty bound never to walk away or suffer the demise of my own potential? Doesn’t that shift control over my joy, my aspirations to you?” is… You can never be what you ought to be (totally free) as long as you have placed a boundary on others by seeing them as apart from you. Your own potential is quite unlimited but do we dare extend beyond what we see as actually possible (or even desirable). No joy is shifted at all. It is a hackneyed example but Mother Teresa saw innumerable children rotting in the sewers of Calcutta and notably treated each like taking Christ off the cross (I’m Jewish so this doesn’t have much cultural resonance for me). While she in many ways reduced suffering in her unflinching service she in no way stop the flow of capital “S” Suffering in Calcutta. But her goal wasn’t to stop that but simply to serve – results be damned. So in that way the only limitation to your happiness is claiming it as yours at all and not surrendering it as common happiness.

    long. ugh.

  15. Great insight to question whether King’s statement is absolute or not, Jonathan. However, we’ll never find complete satisfaction in another person, but only in someone who is incapable of falling short. There is only person who is perfect, and that’s God. We hate to acknowledge this, but all experience affirms it as true.

    I love how you wrestle with the status quo. I like what author Jim Andrews says: “The status quo is not normal.”

  16. Jim Vickers says:

    It’s true. To the extent we and others don’t do what we “should” or are able to do for ourselves or for others, we are all diminished. We “should” do all we can do, and forgive the rest.

  17. Don Power says:

    I must say, this quote from Dr. King doesn’t really inspire me that much.

    I’m more inclined to be inspired by Ghandi’s perspective:

    “Be the change you want to see in the world” – the implication being: forget worrying about what others are doing to change the world. Change yourself first!

    – Don Power

  18. Megan says:

    I have struggled with this my whole life….. and I have worked and slaved in the background supporting and encouraging others; and – until recently – delaying my own pursuit of what I love and what I want to be in order to help everyone else “get there” first.

    THIS is what I have learned: People are helped and inspired most when I am being the very best I can be – often when I am NOT TRYING to help or inspire them. If you are radiating joy and confidence and trust and ability, that is the greatest gift you can give anyone who encounters you.

    When I am really TRYING to help – I end up either enabling them OR pouring MY energy into something THEY are not ready to deal with yet. Either way I am robbing them of the opportunity to really explore what they are experiencing and to discover what THEY want to do about it and what THEY have inside THEMSELVES to meet their own challenges.

    In many cases my “assistance” put rocket boosters on a vehicle that either had the brakes on full, or was rusted in place. The end result was not movement, but a sense of failure or frustration in the person I was trying to help. Often that frustration caused them to lash out at me.

    We cannot ever KNOW what another soul needs to learn or experience.

    If you lend a hand when you are truly moved to do so out of love or as an extension of your own joy in living, that is a wonderful thing. But it sounds like in some cases it has become a burden for you.

    Some people – even those who seem to us to be suffering or unfulfilled – will never “budge.” That is their choice, and allowing them that choice is a gesture of love and respect.

    I have a dear friend who tells me (when I need to hear it) that all I can do is to serve the ball over the net. If the other person does not volley it back then there is nothing else for me to do in that situation.

    My friend is teaching me by example to ALLOW other people to be and do exactly as they will. He does not allow either their actions or their inaction to hold him back. He does what is most fulfilling to him. AND he’s always willing to generously extend a hand IF they ask for it.

    Some people simply don’t change — and others blossom because he ALLOWS them to do so in THEIR own way and in THEIR own time. I hope some day to experience the peace he radiates.

  19. Hi Jonathan

    My interpretation of Martin Luther Kings words, is more from a global perspective…

    If we do not look at the lowest group consiousness of the planet we will never really be able to make global strides. It is great that there are so many incredible positive raaa raaa reee bloggers, and motivational speakers etc…but until we are able to address and overcome the horrors that currently grip our planet, like drugs and human trafficking, and abusing our planets natural resources etc…We are always at the mercy of the lowest consciousness. The perpetrators of these atrocities.

    I see the consiousness of the planet like pressure cells. There might be a whole lot of good vibes in some areas of the world, and destructive vibes in other areas. They are not isolated. We cannot box off horror and live in our perfect worlds. The negativity diffuses the positivity. But the good news is the positivity diffuses the negativity. So as long as the consciousness of the planet is moving toward the positive – and with people like you in it, I can see that it is happening, we will eventually be able to lift the lowest. And it does not need to be directly.

  20. This could be an hours long discussion. I think it would need to begin with defining what you, he and I mean by being all that you can be.
    I interpret MLK’s words more in terms of compassion and groups. For example, as long as I am accepting or turning a blind eye to the discrimination in my community I don’t believe I can be all that I can be. At some level, over time that impacts me. It’s in the category of:
    First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out.

  21. Nanya: K, Bahiya-El-Bey says:

    …On…Thursday…Date..1/21/10…Time..3:40..PM…C.S.T…New Orleans

    To: Jonathan Fields

    I like what you said Jonathan about oute of MLK When he said and I Repeated Quote again from all the Rest what ever affects one Directly affect all Indirectly I can never be what I ought to be untill you be what you ought to be this is the Interelated structure of reality what western society spiritual Disease is separation from the whole on account of race and class distinction a nationality this nation got a habit of saying to Indigenous people all over the world by saying then people you people and those people making a separation distinction of separation when it come don to people of different nationality and race that what MLK was trying to say when he means in a form of Oppression in his time back in the 50’s and 60’s western society still got this spiritual disease today that plague this society our problen is not economically but how we treat our fellow man and exploit and use people like toool and fool and number like what corporate america do is a nothe r form of corporate greed like what the medical field thinks about the health care and the pharmaceutical Medicine of this country verses Wholistic Healing it is profit before Health and the Medicine is as High as Hell and the doctor Bills also and the cost of living that goes along with it too I just brought this out to say we got to straighten up or ship out with this Globalism to communicate with different people of othe nationality and race and stop putting every body in race cast and nationality cast systen what the founding fathere of this nation have done for the past 400 years since they have rule this nation I am not advocating a hate doctrine but a Spiritual Humanity healing doctrine the point I am trying to make here is if we don’t get along together then we will end up destroying humanity as a Whole with the Atomic or Nucleur Bomb what I am saying is western society as a whole got to straighten up itst act under capitalism of Exploitation of Greed for Economic Gain and Destroying the Enviroment as a Whole for Economic gain the use and abuse of Humanity and the Enviroment as a whole if you are a Human Being I do not care what nationality you are nor race or Ethnic color a Brother or sister got to treat you like a brother before I call hime my Brother well Hell I do not like some of my own people of Indigenous Color that treat me like dirt and some time a White man or other people of othe nationality could treat me better then my own Indigenous people of color so I say its is a Spiritual Disease we have not a Religious Disease that put humanity in a box by ruling class dictate of morally we got a Beautiful Civilization Materialy but spiritually we are a Dead Horse

    Yours Truly and Sincerely
    Noble: & Mystic Sage
    Nanya: K, Bahiya-El-Bey

  22. Laurie Seymour says:

    An ongoing lesson/practice for me in my life is to be able to “hold a picture” of the highest potential of someone (especially someone I care about), while remaining the witness. That is, to keep moving on in my life whether or not someone else wants to/ is willing to keep moving on in theirs. That may be the greatest (only?) gift that we have to offer, both to others and to ourselves.

  23. Michael Roth says:


    Dr. King was talking to the issue of people who were suppressed (or oppressed) by others, what you are talking to is the issue of people who suppress (or oppress) themselves.

    Comes back to Dr. King’s desire that people be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. He was not expressing a desire that people not be judged, he was expressing a desire on how the judgement was rendered.


  24. Karilee says:

    I agree that for me as well, it’s the “oughts” in the middle sentence that make me uncomfortable. King’s statement would work better for me, this way:

    “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never reach my fullest potential unless you choose to reach yours. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

    I guess in answer to your questions, Jonathan, well, that’s the game here. You can also choose to transcend to a reality where you are already complete, if you prefer.

    In any case, here’s a quote which has helped me hang on through some of the tougher times when the behavior or judgments of others, or my own need to please them disappointed me:

    “I long ago made the decision that in every area of life, I will choose the path of least resistance in this, that I will please at least myself in all things.”
    – Cyrano de Bergerac

  25. caitlyn says:

    “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

    Many of your commenters have some wise insights along the same lines as my comment. While you are making an interesting point about interpersonal dynamics and the effect it has on ourselves, and ultimately, the world, MLK was not an individualist trying to find his personal way.

    MLK was a courageous black man standing up and saying, “Dammit! As hard as I try … as hard as all the black Americans try … we cannot be fully ourselves until you stop being racist. Until you stop implementing racist, oppressive, segregating policies.”

    Putting words into MLK’s mouth: As long as the white power structure refuses to change, regardless of how famous & successful one black man may become, he will still be less than what he can fully be. And, I think, we have seen this clearly in the election of Obama. I cried for joy, and I cried in frustration & pain – clearly we were celebrating the election & success of the “first black President of the USA” & how horrible, awful, that we are this many years beyond MLK’s famous speeches before it has happened! How uncomfortable that it is still something to be noticed & celebrated as a triumph of equality.

    And, I’m still celebrating. Whatever it takes, and however long it takes, I will work to become the person who does not stand in the way of any other person achieving their full potential.

  26. Renee Morrison says:

    Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Or, is this not about helping those who are given the option to transcend circumstance, but refuse?~Jonathan Fields

    We are always imparting our energy and spirit with those we encounter. We are also aware of, and effected by their energy. Positive results nurture us, but a lack thereof can not cause us to lose hope, or doubt the interrelatedness of everything, or doubt our impact on.

    I am, “what I ought to be” in this moment, and I will be in the next. You are what you “ought to be” now. We must discard narrow views of success. ~Renee