Almost everyone has a “this teacher changed my life” story. Usually it’s a high school teacher who provided a nurturing environment during a particularly challenging year in school. I have a few of those stories myself, but one educator stands out the most. It was a philosophy professor I never took a class from, and I only met him one time for about five minutes. But that brief encounter has stuck with me for well over a decade. In only a few words, he changed my life and gave me an insight into how easy it is to be a better person.
In my last year of college, I had just signed up for my final quarter of classes. My schedule hadn’t worked out quite as planned. The way the classes were offered, I was going to graduate one credit shy of a minor if philosophy, and there was nothing I could do to get that final credit. Since one lousy credit seemed like a fairly arbitrary discrepancy, I figured it might be possible for an exception to be made.
Up to that moment, I had avoided dealing with college administrators at all costs. In my experience, they never failed to make life harder rather than easier. Even when they were helpful, they made a point of making you feel bad about not having the correct paper work, not filling the paperwork out correctly, or not showing up to the right office at the right time. But in this case, going a little bit out of my way to take on the administrators seemed worth the trouble. I’d worked hard in all my philosophy classes, and I wanted something to show for it — even if it was a trivial minor degree.
As it turned out, there was a process for someone in my situation. After gathering up all the required paperwork, the only thing that stood in my way was a signature from the dean of the philosophy department.
I’d never met the dean before and was a little shocked by how relatively young and non-threatening he seemed. Taking a seat in his office, I was immediately put at east by his calm demeanor. Still, as I explained my situation to him, I didn’t have much hope for a positive outcome. I was waiting for the inevitable pushback, when I’d have to jump into combative mode and argue my case.
But the pushback never came. He asked me a few basic questions about the classes I’d taken and generally about my experience with the department. Then he asked to see the form I’d brought with me.
“This is my favorite part of my job,” he said, accepting the form. “I take a piece of paper. I sign my name. I make someone happy.”
With that, he handed me back the form, now glistening with his signature.
As I walked out of his office, I wasn’t just relieved and appreciative, I felt an unexpected sense of enlightenment. The lesson I took away wasn’t about fairness or even about kindness, it was about humanity. We build these complex systems and bureaucracies and we structure them with fairly arbitrary rules; but in the end, we’re all just people, and we’re all in this together. We don’t have to be make things complicated, just because we exist within complex systems. We can just take the actions that are needed to make people happy.
After my encounter with that philosophy professor, I remember feeling light on my feet for the rest of the day. It was great that I now had my philosophy minor in the bag. But also I had a new tool for life. In practice, this tool is very much like the idiom: “Take the path of least resistance.” Except, there’s a humanitarian twist, forming the instruction: “Whenever possible, take the path of least resistance in order to make life easier for yourself and others.”
Every day, in almost every situation, there are ways to make things more difficult, more complicated. We’re surrounded by harsh systems, traditions, rules, and bureaucracy. Individually, we’re creatures often defined by our strict habits, grudges, jealousies, and prejudices. But despite all of this, in almost every situation, there’s always the option to assess the situation, respond with the minimum effort required for the task at hand, and make someone happy.