So today, out of the blue, my friend Darlene sent a message via Facebook Messenger. It went like this:
“My purpose in life is not finding emotional or physical comfort for myself, but for others.” It was a quote she had taken from another source.
Her message was thoughtful: “I agree this should be our ultimate purpose,” she wrote. “But emotional comfort and physical comfort must be developed from within ourselves before we have the tools to help someone else.” Then she added, “that doesn’t give us the excuse to do nothing. Everyone can do something.”
Hmmm, I thought. Not sure what to think of that yet. But alas, or perhaps fortuitously, I was on a Zoom call and couldn’t respond. My eyes grazed over it again after my call, but duty beckoned: deliver books to my neighbor and hit the grocery store for myself. Home again, I put items away first. Finally, I returned to the computer, where her message still sat.
It was not the right time, of course. Katniss decided at that moment she would like to take a nap – on me – so I leaned into her desire. As she draped herself across my chest, I sat idle and looked out my window. For the moment, I decided, I would just “be” and “notice.”
So, cat comfortably asleep, I began to mindfully notice.
I noticed the steady tick of the clock above me, although I never looked at its face. I noticed how the wind ruffled the leaves on my tree, and how the bird feeder swayed like a trapeze artist as the shepherd’s hook flexed with its weight. Looking further, I noticed how the wind danced lightly through the tall grass (my neighbor has not cut that small field for nearly a year and the grass is lovely and tall). I noticed my thoughts: some invisible playmates must have been streaking through the grass, chasing after one another for the sheer joy of being alive. The patterns of the wind were the only signs of their passing. I noticed that I was observing things outside my house while I sat in an artificial environment. I noticed Katniss’s soft purring, how my arms were slightly aching as I held her safely in sleep. I noticed the stretch of her muscles as she snuggled one paw, then the other, around my neck. I noticed how being hugged by a cat made me smile.
When she deigned to remove herself to another spot for sleeping, I returned to my computer. And there, again, was Darlene’s message: the quote and her reaction to that quote, cursor still blinking patiently, waiting for my fingers to itch. And itch, they finally did.
“This is an interesting quote,” I type. I have no real idea where this will go.
“At first glance it’s a noble goal, a selfless endeavor. But on another level, which you’ve touched upon, it’s a denial of self.” I stop and think a moment.
“’I don’t matter,’ is its message. ‘Only others matter.’ More thought.
“The reality is that we have the capacity for inner and outer love, for inner well-being and nurture as well as outer well-being and nurture.” My fingers are flying now as my thoughts tumble out.
“If we are not whole and self-sustained, we cannot hope to provide the same to others and, when we do so in spite of not being fulfilled ourselves, we build up a sense of expectation of others – ‘appreciate me, or I will feel cheated,’ and potentially nurturing a belief that ‘I don’t need or deserve cosseting.’
“I think that has the potential of sowing a seed of resentment inside that we may not realize until much later, when we are depleted and possibly burned out. All because we didn’t fill up our own cups first, nor did we take time to refill them regularly.
“I think we might risk, then, that we will come to expect gratitude, and begin caring for others just to feel that gratitude because we are using it to fill our cups up, even though it doesn’t work that way. So, if we don’t care for ourselves at the center, at the outset, therein lies the problem.”
I sat for a while, not thinking but noticing how that landed for me (thank you, Katniss).
“On the other hand, if we are ourselves sustained, if we love ourselves and seek and provide comfort to ourselves as well, then we are free to give that to others without short-changing anyone, including ourselves … and without lacing our giving with strings, ties, expectations or resentments. When we give of ourselves without expecting gratitude, we do it because it feeds our own souls and our own well-being – it sustains us as much as we sustain others. Our cup, our fullness overflows, so there is never a loss of self, merely a mirror of it in others. And our cups can fill a multitude of others.”
Those are my thoughts, Darlene. Grateful for the tickle.