Let’s face it, if we’re the kind of person who spends any time thinking, most of that time is spent focused on our own feelings, perspectives, wants, fears, memories, dreams, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that–it’s human nature. In reality, putting other people first is counterintuitive. It violates the survival instinct, which views everything negative as a threat until we can investigate it and establish that our lives and welfare aren’t endangered.
But our parents, teachers, members of the clergy, and society constantly hammer into us that we have to put other people first. We need to consider the feelings of others before we think and act. But what happens when we do all those things and wind up hurting ourselves?
I know a person who is struggling right now. In fact, she’s been in a tough place for some time. And when I say struggling, that’s exactly what I mean. She has unintentionally alienated most of her family, suffers from a medical condition, and exerts every ounce of strength going to work each day and doing what she needs to do to stay healthy and safe. She has a temporary job and a temporary place to live. And her life is TONS better now than it was a year ago.
Periodically, she visits to seek my advice and perspective about some of the challenges she faces. I hesitate to speak up, because she sees a therapist and I’m not a professionally trained medical professional qualified to give advice. However, I am a human being who understands her situation and family and I have an opinion. On the other hand, I refuse to tell her what to do because … well … who the heck am I? It’s not like I’ve always made the best life decisions myself…
But how can I just sit there and say nothing, or refuse to share my opinion, when she really, really wants it? How do I not grumble about the fact that she always visits spur of the moment–and when I have other things I really need to do (especially with only 3 days remaining ’til Christmas …)? How do I not remember the migraines that always strike the day after she visits because I exert such rigid control over myself to be sure I’m as mindful as possible when speaking, instead of being the spontaneous blurter I really am?
In short, who should I put first?
I’m sure you understand the dilemma–and sometimes face it yourself. How do YOU handle this type of situation?
I’m the kind of person who finds it nearly impossible to say no. Especially to someone who’s hurting. Seriously, how can we measure pain? Let’s say you go to the ER because of some situation, and the nurse asks, “On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your pain level?” Really? There’s a universal 1 to 10 scale that everyone shares and agrees about?
Close your eyes. Pretend it’s April, where the average temperature is in the mid-50s during the daytime. Then, pretend the sun is shining and you can feel it penetrate your bones. It’s 65 degrees and you don’t hesitate to step outside without a sweater or jacket for the first time in months. You feel wonderful. Hopeful. Warm!
Now, open your eyes, walk over to the thermostat in your house and feel the reality: 65 degrees. You’re probably freezing–with thick socks on your feet and a long-sleeved tee beneath your sweater or hoodie. 65 degrees in December is a whole different story than it is in April, isn’t it?
Life is all about perspective.
I’m sitting here writing this therapeutic blog post the day after my struggling friend visited, the migraine pounding behind my eyes. I realize I don’t have to make a choice. I don’t have to decide if it’s about her or me. Because it’s really about both of us.
She was in pain yesterday, and wanted some comfort. At the time, I wasn’t in pain and was willing and able to reach out to provide the soothing she really and truly needed. Now I’m feeling the discomfort of a headache. But you know what? My migraine isn’t as bad as it was before I began writing. As I wrote, I subconsciously managed to resolve an unrelated issue that’s been plaguing me for some time. I also experienced the reality of something I’ve said hundreds of times in my life: when we share the pain of those we love, we lessen it.
I helped my friend yesterday, and by helping her clear the fog from her thoughts so she could see a few realities, that entire process helped me do the same this morning.
She doesn’t know about it … yet. But I’m going to tell her.
It’s never just about one person. It’s always about us, collectively. Everything each of us does has an effect on someone else, or several someones. If we run from a person who’s in pain, we actually help magnify that pain–for the other person (through inattention) and for ourselves (through guilt). When we open our hearts and minds enough to put someone first in a particular moment, we’re not subjugating our own wants and feelings, we’re simply postponing putting ourselves first, and experiencing a defining moment that has the potential to change our lives.
During this holiday season, give the gift of compassion and watch it make a difference in someone else’s life … and then rebound back into yours.