This is something I, Elizabeth, have struggled with my entire life. I see people hurting, injustices present in the world, diseases taking over our loved ones, depression and mental disorders seemingly becoming more common in our closest friends and relatives, divorces and heartbreaks occurring in our social circles, and lastly, most troubling for me, that look in a person’s eye that tells you they are so incredibly terrified of being alone – feeling abandoned by the world and the divine.
And my first reaction to all this pain and suffering is to empathize with those who are hurting, and help them carry their heavy cross. I literally put myself into the other person’s life and try to feel all the pain that they feel, and then ask myself, “What can I do to help them? What can I do to make them feel loved?” For so long this ability to empathize with others and make them feel special and noticed has been where I have gotten my worth. I know this because when I fall short and am unable to make a person who is struggling feel happy and cared for, I feel really bad about myself. I somehow come to the conclusion that I failed that person because I didn’t take away their burden. I didn’t heal them.
My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease a few years ago. Fortunately, he has been very resilient and active, and fights with every fiber of his being to live a normal life. This morning I watched him walk to his car with a briefcase, garment bag, and coat, and I noticed how challenging it was for him to carry it all. As I looked out the window at him (wearing my pajamas), my first instinct was to run out after him in my slippers and help, help carry his cross. After all, isn’t that why we’re here? To help each other when life gets tough? But I didn’t. Instead I waited for him to safely get into his car, and then I decided to go back to sleep.
So why? Why would I choose to just watch? Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my intentions behind my actions, and I’ve concluded that so often I am trying to heal people. I am so affected by their pain, that I just want to take it away from them. So I literally put down everything in my life–my career, self-care, fitness, cooking, socializing, cleaning, relaxation–to try and eradicate the suffering. And while my intention is a beautiful one, I have lost a piece of me in the process. And while I could continue living this way, masking selflessness as something good for the world, I don’t believe it always is.No matter how wide I stretch my fingers, my hands will always be too small to catch all the pain I want to heal.Now this doesn’t mean I stop caring and empathizing for people. That is so inherent in me, I don’t believe I could stop even if I wanted to (which I don’t!). But it does mean that I need to both change my intentions behind my empathetic actions, and create balance so I’m not sacrificing my own well-being all the time.
Today I began to put this into action. As I watched my father get into his car, I didn’t run out and try to carry his briefcase, garment bag, and coat (the burden he carried today). Instead, I watched to make sure he was safe. My intention changed from healing his pain to trusting that he could manage it in that moment, without me swooping in to try and save the day. I didn’t have to sacrifice my sleep (something I really struggle with getting enough of) which would have really negatively affected me throughout the day, and most likely the people I had to work with as well. This was my balance. Not abandoning him, but also not abandoning my own needs either. Today I am working on letting go of the desire to save and heal others, and transitioning into how to serve them. Some days that means sacrificing a part of myself (perhaps stopping to feed a person experiencing homelessness, and showing up to a meeting a few minutes late), but sometimes, it means listening to my own needs and choosing to love myself while loving others from a distance in that moment. My worth is not in my ability to save. My worth is merely in my existence. Every day that I wake up breathing is proof enough that I have worth.
Once again, I’m learning that the best thing we can offer those who are suffering is to walk through the darkness with them, and bring a little light. But I firmly believe we are able to do this best when we are holding our own hand along the way.