Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On empathy, personal responsibility, and health

Often, during more connecting periods of my life, I find myself overwhelmed, out of sorts and feeling, as Bilbo Baggins put it in The Fellowship Of the Ring, "Sort of stretched, like....butter scraped over too much bread". One of the late warning flags for me is a feeling of anger or contempt toward those who ask for my time or emotional energy, and it's especially sobering to me when the bitterness turns toward my children.

Trying to find affection to give feels like pushing a swivel chair across a gravel parking lot. During those moments, my children's needs seem to attack me, like poison darts rather than little hands extended, and I find myself muttering tearfully, "How did I get here?" Every fiber of my soul screams at me that something is out of balance.

More often than not, I find myself emotionally dry because I've been sucked into carrying the daily load of someone else, when it's not rightfully mine, leaving me with barely enough energy to heft my own reasonably sized daily routine. I do this almost entirely without pondering whether I should, since, without wisdom or logic, empathy knows no bounds or boundaries. As wisdom and logic are something I must consciously chose to employ, at least at this juncture, exercising them consistently is a matter of "practice makes perfect".

At any rate, my own normal "load" becomes much, much heavier when it carrying it receives the sloppy seconds of my energy resources.

One of the biggest obstacles, for myself at least, in grappling with boundaries and empathy simultaneously, is the idea that "nice" people listen patiently and give of themselves to others when they're emotionally distraught. Isn't that what we're taught to do as little girls and boys? That it's unkind to not share unreservedly of our resources, if someone asks us to hand them over? Unconditional "sharing", though, becomes a strange and dangerous monster for the person who intuits and anticipates the needs of others, because there's no limit to human pain and it's need to be alleviated.

In a technological age, the ever-presence of the discomfort of others is even more pronounced, because it's not merely daily life encounters that make the hurt of others obvious to us, but we're also cursed with a sort of artificial emotional omnipotence made possible by television, the internet, facebook, blogs, message boards and the like. The sheer volume of emotional information we receive can potentially drain our reserves by midday, and is compounded by the fact that people tend to be drawn to those who make them feel "better", even if only temporarily.

We have an open window into the thoughts of close friends and vague acquaintances alike- irritation about the tasks of daily life, burdens or causes that have sprouted in their hearts, worries about the future, anger and frustration (some warranted, some not) over some event or interaction, explosions over minor problems, giant actual problems...etc. All sorts of doors into the lives of others are opened in a wild orgy of collective knowledge, and I, for one, find myself scrambling to sort through what I should open my heart to and what I should shield myself from (and I mean shield in the most pragmatic sense, as an actual strategic move to protect my own energy). I worry while reading through them that I run the risk of becoming drained dry or completely jaded.

Some people have gaping holes in their hearts and souls that have been long standing, that they're unable/unwilling to pay attention to and fix, which cause them to be ravenous predators of the attention and sympathy of others (some through aggression, and some through passive whining). Pouring energy into their symptoms is as pointless as pouring oil into a bottomless cruet. Nothing will come of it, other than the complete taxation of my resources-resources that rightfully belong to myself and my family.

Other people lack the support system they need to hack through their own difficult (or just average) journey. And, of course, there are always those who experience tragedy on such a profound scale that they *must* reach out for support from those around them, least they be reduced to emotional and physical ash. Even so, I can chose to offer practical help within my ability, without allowing myself to become completely consumed by collective chatter and speculation about the details of their struggle.

On a grander scale, worthy random "causes" rip my sanity and actual usefulness to shreds. (I once counted 15 different links and invitations to support different causes in one day's facebook news feed alone! Serial cause-supporters tend to get hidden from my feed altogether. :P) I believe that people who find their burden and calling in dedicating their time to causes is a beautiful thing, and, I recognize that it's unrealistic for me to donate little snippets of my time and worry to 40 of them at a time. Not only is it unhelpful to me, it's also not particularly useful for the cause itself, on such a diffuse and halfhearted level.

When all these needs swarm around my chest like a living being demanding entrance, wrapping through real interactions or the computer screen with hungry, indiscriminate tendrils...I find it helpful to make myself a cup of tea. I like to remind myself that I'm only a small part of the universe, completely incapable of meeting every need I notice (especially the ones that spring from unhealth). I'm just one person, out of billions who have walked before me, and billions who walk alongside me, and the billions to come. My footprints are not solitary. Just because I see a need doesn't mean that I should meet it. Knowledge does NOT equal responsibility on an individual level.
It's not my job to know about all the minor daily discomforts of three or four hundred people, much less step aside to offer positive emotional energy to each (or even some!) of them. It's not my job to go along on an emotional roller coaster ride with someone who refuses to seek health for themselves. It's not my responsibility to feel the depths of the pain of every hurting group of people brought to my attention, though I can breathe a prayer for them.

That's not to say that sometimes there won't be a moment when the spirit of wisdom shows me where it's appropriate to extend a need word of encouragement or grace to someone. That's also not to say that I shouldn't be aware of how my own personal life-sustaining choices effect others on a community or global level-(but then, that's part of *my* burden, isn't it?)

Humility demands not only that I keep an open, pulsating heart available to it's leading, but also that I recognize that I am limited and finite. Walking one true path that is my own and lending an ear to those who cross it or walk alongside me is far more sane and useful than trying to frantically dash down EVERY path to experience everything that everyone has ever experienced.

Humility also requires that I be the shepherdess of my own thought trails, (being an intuitive thinker, especially), and take responsibility for what rabbit trails I expose myself to. Too many rabbit trails completely stamp across the clear water of the life course my heart has been called to, muddying my focus and rendering my energy diffuse and ineffective. Knowing that I have a tenancy to relate easily and that my mind *needs* to make sense of and explore each mental path I see...dictates that I be mindful of how many voices I allow to call out to me at once.

Calm feet planted on my own road, with my own pack strapped on my own back results sometimes in being "tired", but, more often than not, it's the good kind of tired you feel after an honest day's walk and a nourishing dinner-my bones were made for this. My heart is free in this.
I can do this without anger, fatigue or fear, with light in my body and heart.


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