It's taken me a long time to admit to this, partly because I simply didn't realize it about myself. I'm an anxious person. The best relief to my anxiety seems to be found in helping others, and so I'm always vigilantly in search of rescuees. I find myself unable control the urge to jump to the aid of those around me--even strangers at times--when they seem to be struggling with something, even if they don't expressly ask for rescue. From the ambling forlorn tourist to the crying waitress to the dejected friend: I'm on the job. Thank goodness I'm here right now, because I know how to make this better. I can fix it.
I've always assumed that my reasons for such involvement were purely altruistic. I'm helpful, I'll think to myself. I care more about others than I care about myself, I'll proudly muse. If I'm overly opinionated it's because I don't want to see anyone suffering if I can help it, and I can help it, I'll respond when acquaintances comment on my evergreen helpfulness. I'm an advocate. No sufferer left behind.
Last week, my close friend Wyatt told me that one of our mutual friends had described me as manipulative. "Manipulative?" I said. I may be a lot of things but certainly not manipulative. "Why did he think that?" I quickly retorted (anxious--how can I fix his opinion of me?) "He said that you always think you know how to fix everyone's problems, and you are very forceful and directive about the way they should fix them."
It was 100% true. I did do that. I do that. Denial: impossible.
"Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death" (BoM Mosiah 18:8-9).
Taken proverbially, it's just a golden rule-esque equivalent. You guys, let's all help each other out and bring casseroles over when times are tough. But taken literally, it's an extremely serious commandment. When another being mourns, you too must mourn; actually mourn with them. If they are crying and hopeless and sobbing on the floor, you must also fall into a heap and cry as well, thus sharing and lightening their burden of sadness. Or at least you should lift them up off the floor and help them feel better; give them a shoulder upon which to cry and hold the kleenex box.
Because I took almost everything literally when I was an active Mormon, I must've engraved the fullness of these charges upon my very soul.
Now, to help others and bear up those who are in need of comfort is unarguably noble. To comfort those who stand in need of comfort, to have empathy for the other human beings that we encounter in this life cannot but enlarge us all. But in my case, "Was I really seeking good, or just seeking attention?" Further, if you're mourning, does it actually help you to have me mourn with you? In your dispair, does my added dispair relieve yours? Can I actually share your sorrow--divide it so to speak--or have I actually doubled the pain in the world by joining you?
Last week, I found myself in an airport security line behind a young dad, his son, and an older man--presumably the little boy's grandfather. The young dad seemed tired (it was just after 6am) and irritable. His face was blank and stoic. A backpack straddled his broad shoulders (probably the reason I noticed him so quickly) and he appeared to be struggling to remove it. After 10 seconds of unsuccessful shimmying, he incisively tapped the older man and pointed at his backpack as if to say "Remove this now." (my projection) The older man freed one strap from the offending deltoid, and the backpack came off at last.
When a friend or co-worker presents a struggle or problem, even to someone else within earshot, I feel a similar tightness rise up within my stomach and chest. In it's grip, it seems to shout, "You have no right to feel good while this person suffers. Fix it so that you can feel better. And if you can't fix it, your good day is screwed." With the quality of my inner life is on the line--my very happiness hanging in the balance--it's no wonder I can be a little manipulative. Pushy even. I am aggressively desperate for that person to feel better as fast as possible. "I need you to get past this so I can feel better," I might as well say. But if I said that, I probably wouldn't seem as redeeming or helpful. And God forbid that.
There is a funny way of seeing the world that says, "I can't feel good unless those around me are _________." The parent thinks to him/herself, I can't have a good day if my child comes home with bad grades. The boss thinks, I can't feel good unless my employees respect me and honor my wishes. The religious leader thinks, I can't feel the spirit of God unless my sheep remain morally clean. I think, I can't be calm and content when people around me are in trouble.
After leaving the church I found a boyfriend to serve as a shiny new scapegoat for my continuing anxiety. Why can't he be happier and more optimistic? He's so negative. He doesn't have sex with me enough. Why can't he get along better with my friends? I found myself constantly and agitatedly striving to ease his emotional pain, even steamroll his inconsistencies of spirit. "Will you please feel better so I can??" my mind begged him. Eventually it became, "I think I need to break up with him. Oh no, that is really going to hurt him. But I'm not happy and so I need to break up with him. That's really going to suck. But I probably have to do it, sometime." Every unwanted interaction between us poured fresh aqueous anxiety over my restless spirit-- albeit via a different shower head than before.
Now that my relationship has ended after six and a half years, I still find myself occasionally waking up in the morning feeling anxious. Can I continue working as an actor and make enough money to support myself throughout my life? Will my body (which is sometimes extremely sore) be able to continue my 8 show/week schedule into the future? Did I choose the right career or should I have pursued something more stable? Maybe I should have become a doctor after all. Should I go back to school and do something else? Why am I so anxious anyway? Now that I'm aware of my anxiety, am I going to be too anxious to find a happy relationship? Should I go back to my old relationship and try again, even though I was not happy? Maybe my anxiety poisoned it.
I have to face the facts. There is something going on inside of me that needs attention.
I must learn to acknowledge that each person on this earth is a powerful creator in his/her own right, and is not only responsible but fully capable of helping him/herself feel better. If people want help, they will ask for it. For me to feel the need to anticipate everyone else's needs is a huge source of anxiety.
My belief that I am worthless beyond my ability to help others is something that I must also face head on. I must accept the fact that I don't have the answers to the problems that others face.
I should probably also accept the fact that sometimes people don't want to feel better right away, so trying to force them to do so is futile, and not helpful at all.
And finally, I've got to accept the fact that I am allowed to be happy even when others are not. There is always someone suffering. Life is full of people who have lost a loved one, found out that they are sick, lost their job, or gotten dumped. If we must mourn with all of them, then it is likely that we will perpetually be dressed in nothing but black.
Eventually, I'd like to discover a way to help others without hurting myself. But that begs the question, where did I learn that one should suffer innocently--even unto death--to redeem and comfort people who struggle? Maybe when you live that way you're not intended to live longer than 33 years. I'm 35-- maybe that's the problem.
In this moment, I have an opportunity to learn. To breathe.
After the showers of anxiety, I find that the plush towel of abundance works wonders. To replace thoughts of fear, anxiety, and lack with recognition of abundance--of fullness-- is the most incredible tool I've discovered so far. When I see others in distress, I want to learn to recognize the truth: that they can handle it, and that they will learn from the distress that they themselves have brought into their experience. They don't need me to fix it. They're going to be fine.
Interestingly, I'm actually not trying to be like Jesus at this moment.
And I think that's a good thing.