Cognitive dissonance is a troubling thing to say the least. It causes a person to fall into a mental frenzy and a struggle for internal consistency. But, the mind’s efforts to re-establish mental equipoise between our understanding of reality and a new conflicting observation of reality demonstrate surprising utility. I’ve recently suffered a stint of cognitive dissonance, but the frenzy having abated has left me with a realization that has not only granted me alleviation, but also a better understanding. It’s like the calm after a storm.

I was looking through Rotary accomplishments, and was taken aback by a startling trend. Many of our greatest accomplishments were not achieved by Rotarians alone, but rather with the assistance of others. It would seem that Rotarians don’t work as well with other Rotarians as they do with non-Rotarians. Rotary seems to work best when working with others.

This was not an analytical inference I was expecting to make. I suddenly felt the strength leave my arms and legs, and then, with a much deflated feeling went about trying to reconcile why it would seem that we were so reliant upon others for our success.

However, thinking about how other organizations have helped Rotary precipitated a second and more encouraging thought: They were only able to help us because we helped them. The ‘helping’ was reflexive, which is actually what Paul Harris has always had in mind for Rotary. Paul Harris once said in an interview that, “Rotary Club developed consistently, and the original idea of mutual helpfulness evolved into the idea of general helpfulness which is epitomized in the ideal of service.”

So, our key word and starting point here is the ‘mutual helpfulness’ which has blossomed into our ideal of service. We can look at mutual helpfulness in numerous ways, but the core concept is symbiosis. As we help others, we are in turn helping ourselves. Now, we’ve seen this on the macro level where Rotary has countless times teamed up with other organizations to do more good to the world than either party could have ever hoped to alone. But, if we were to regress back to the individual, perhaps we could define mutual helpfulness as ‘self-help through helping others’. Though this definition seems to deprive mutual helpfulness of its altruistic component, we have to remember that we need help ourselves if we are to put our best foot forward towards helping others.

There truly isn’t anything new under the sun. It’s been over five decades since Paul Harris has left us, but he is still taking us to school. While I earlier made an analytical inference I didn’t have any taste for, Paul Harris’s own analysis, in 1922, came to the same conclusion that we’re making now. He said, “In the final analysis, Rotary exists for the purpose of developing the individual member and thereby increasing his capacity to serve.”

So, while I’ve reiterated this again and again, when we work on Rotary projects we have to keep our objectives in mind. It’s a slippery slope when we start measuring our

‘success’ by way of publicity impact and project efficiency. While it’s convenient to use such measures, the more emphasis we put on these proxies the farther we steer from the main purpose of Rotary. We need to focus on helping others, to help ourselves, to help us all.