I wrote a post on the first day of 2018 reviewing my 2017. In it, I said that 2017 was the year that I finally realized I have to live my life for myself first and foremost, and that statement struck a discordant note in me then and still does now, so I want to clarify.
Service to others is the most meaningful thing we can do with our lives.
Our brief lifetimes take place in the narrow territory between the oblivion before our births and the oblivion after our deaths. We have but a few short breaths in which to make this momentary life meaningful; then our breath stops, and the next life begins.
Nothing we do with this life will have a lasting effect. No matter how hard we try to improve ourselves, at the time of death it will wash away. Every degree, every possession, every bit of knowledge we acquired will be lost, and we will walk into the next life empty-handed.
Bleak, I know. But true.
If we have a chance to do anything of value with this life, it’s within our service to others. Perhaps, like a gene passed on, through kindness, service, and love, we might leave a little thread of ourselves behind that will make the journey of others easier. Better.
In the past year, I’ve learned that I am far from being a perfect human being. In fact, I’ve learned that I’m further away from perfection than I have hoped. Nonetheless, the central thesis of my life that has survived this year of Shiva’s destruction remains that I want to strive for service above all else.
But I’ve learned (at last) that duty to others taken too far eventually becomes counterproductive.
I must admit that I’ve never much cared for the pop-psychology language about “self-compassion” and “self-love” and blah blah blah. It all sounded rather like an excuse for “self-indulgence” to me. And I still think that many people use those terms that way — a modern way of justifying our ancient habit of “me first.”
But finally I found myself in a situation in which I had stopped living my life for myself and lived it only for others. I thought I was being nobly selfless; in reality, I just had some kind of twisted martyr complex. I didn’t see the inevitable implosion my stance would create until the chain reaction of destruction had already begun.
There comes a point in stories when some supporting character says to the protagonist, “You won’t be any good to X if you don’t take care of yourself first.” And as readers or viewers, we know that it’s true. We yell at the protagonist on the page or on the screen to *listen* to this supporting character, because if s/he doesn’t, s/he dooms not only him/herself, but also everyone s/he is fighting to save.
I thought I was taking care of myself. I wasn’t. I was forcing myself forward, day-by-day, despite the unending discord my life had become. I was trying to hike a mountain made of quicksand because it was what others needed. I couldn’t get off that mountain, I reasoned, because if I did, others would succumb to the sand.
“I can’t continue.”
I had to face this truth. Staying on the mountain because I wanted to help everyone else on there was only going to get us all killed (metaphorically).
Hindsight is 20/20. If I had taken care of myself sooner, attended to my own needs, I wouldn’t have needed to get off that mountain with such dramatic suddenness. But things unfold in life the way they unfold, and I had lessons that I had to (apparently) learn the hard way or else not at all.
As painful as 2017 was for me, I am grateful for it. I learned much. I understand now on a much deeper level the absolute necessity — and interdependency between — caring for ourselves and caring for others. If we do not look after our own needs, those needs will, sooner or later, assert themselves in destructive ways.
I won’t make fun of the terms “self-compassion” and “self-love” anymore. (Even though it still sounds like code for masturbation to me!)
Instead, I will listen to and honor my own heart. Because I have learned that if I don’t, I will end up hurting others in the end anyway. And that is the very last thing I want to do.