Thursday, July 20, 2017

Who’s on First?

In the world of caring relationships, we are often told to sacrifice—to put the needs of others before our own. This is considered by many to be the highest form of caring, of service to others.  It contains a fatal flaw, however. It is one thing to “love they neighbor as thyself” and quite another to love him more. This is a valuable clue to many of the ills of humans in society. How can you take care of someone else when you are worn out yourself?

If you continually put others before yourself, whether these are loved ones or total strangers, eventually you will pay the price. As a parent, you often must put your child’s immediate needs first. A child needs help obtaining everything: food, clothing, a place to sleep. When your child is ill, his illness disrupts your sleep. When money is short, your child gets food first. At some point, however, if you wish to be healthy, you will need to catch up. If you continue to put your child’s needs first, you may just collapse one day and no longer be able to care as lovingly or even at all. Caretakers also require care. Even parents fall ill unexpectedly, and always inconveniently! Then, confined to bed, you are finally forced to catch up on self-care.  You realize that this is not the best plan.

It is vital to look inside and ensure that you, as a caretaker, are thriving. In this context, thriving does not mean, staying upright by a thread, thoroughly enjoying the health of your loved one. Rather, it means doing well as an individual—being happy and healthy in your own right. We provide the best care to others when we provide the best care to ourselves.

You say that you are tough, that you can take it, and that you love helping. All of this may be quite true, but no one is limitless; no one is without basic needs. And each of us is worthy of care. Even you.

Be very clear: this concept applies to all relationships. Whether we refer to a child, that dependent being who really does need your care even to survive, a loved one for whom you wish to care to express your devotion, or a stranger to whom you feel obligation because of the bond of humanity; if you do not take care of you, the caring other, then one day, those who depend upon you will no longer enjoy your care.

Caretaking is not some weird game of alternating who gets to be sick and needy; it is rather a social agreement whereby those we love and value share care with us, and we thrive as a group. Sometimes it is true that the caretaking goes one way, as with an elder or an infant, but in all cases, there is a mutual benefit. A parent helped us, and we later help them. A neighbor came to our aid, and one day we help someone else.Value is exchanged, whether in the form of love, trading favors, or simply the good feeling of contributing.

Recall that when you fly, you are cautioned to apply your oxygen mask first in case of emergency, because if you pass out from lack of oxygen, then who will help your child? Every human needs care, not just OTHER humans. The greatest gift we give to our children is the ability to survive independently. This includes being able to share in their own care as soon as they are able. It is not a chore for your child to tie her own shoes or make her own lunch; it is a success. Nor is it a chore for him to make you a PB&J along with his own; it is a chance to feel the joy of contributing.

It is okay to say no. Here is the magic, self-preserving, word that we teach children, but forget to apply to ourselves. When you are asked to put out more energy than you have, in the end, both of you will suffer. You can tell your child to make her own lunch or your partner to do the dishes or your elderly parent to wait until tomorrow for laundry. You can tell your neighbor that today is not a good day to take him to the store.  This does not make you a bad person; it makes you a person.

There is an old ethic that commands us to not be selfish, to not put ourselves first. The problem is that the math does not work. If everyone depends upon others who are not in turn cared for, who will be left standing?   

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