How Can I Help?
I’m writing this wrapped in my cotton shawl, curled up on the couch recovering from a minor bout of bronchitis, a chronic condition for me it seems, that sets in when I dip too low.
The past two weeks have been peppered with bad new, tragedy and life changing diagnoses all around me. Dear friends have lost family, received devastating test results and my extended family has been touched by life threatening Covid.
I’ve tried to be supportive and caring, offer a soft shoulder to lean on and show up with comforting food. All the while running on empty from too many days of work and an out of balance and over scheduled life.
I can’t help but see the life lesson looking back in retrospect.
As women, it’s been engrained in us to care for others, to provide comfort to those who grieve, aid for those who suffer and support for those family and friends stricken by physical ailments, temporary and life threatening.
We’ve been mothers, sisters, friends and professional caregivers. We’ve devoted our lives to this role and much of the time, the needs of others came first, before our own. It came naturally for some, by obligation for others, but by virtue of being born female, it was what was expected.
Our instincts were nurtured as young children. We were given baby dolls to care for, called upon to apprentice at our mother’s side when our elders needed comfort and support. We’ve been groomed to care, almost from birth. As girls, we were praised for our giving spirit, for being unselfish and gentle.
We were never asked if this was our choice. So, we dutifully stepped into our place within our families, social circles and society. We raised our children, volunteered at our church to serve the needy, organized meal trains, and spent hours at bedsides, so there would be the comfort of a familiar face when someone awoke in the sterile environs of a hospital room.
We faced the tough times, when natural disasters tore apart someone’s world, when a child was hurt, or a spouse lost. We drew strength from some unknown well we never knew existed and we showed up time and time again.
However, we’ve entered a new era of our lives.
When we think of what we did, we’re proud of what we gave but we quietly pray we won’t be asked to give more.
We’re not that endless stream of energy and courage anymore. We’re running out of what it takes to put others first, and we’re not sure we want to any longer. We’ve begun to recognize our unmet needs, to calculate the cost of being selfless and unquestionably available for others. We are beginning to realize we must prioritize ourselves.
So, what do we do now when needs arise? How do we calculate how much of our precious energy and time we have to spare and to whom it is allocated, for how long and in what form?
It’s interesting to consider, and I feel like I’m doing so for the first time, having always been the one to rush in, and be all in, at the first sign of trouble. I never considered the impact on myself and my life until I began to fray at the edges and my world went off kilter because I haven’t devoted enough of myself to me. I didn’t so much learn the lesson, as my candle just burned down and now I don’t have that kind of response to offer.
I have learned to pause, consider the circumstance more thoroughly before I take action, and decide in advance, when possible, where my boundaries lie and what my sacrifice will be if I take on a role in support of another.
Interestingly, as I consider all of this. I’m also noticing what we need and want in times of trouble may also be very different from our younger selves.
We’ve changed as mature women, becoming more self-reliant and able to shoulder what comes without running into the arms of a supportive friend. We are now capable of processing grief and loss as part of our life, realizing it is no longer a rare occurrence but a relative constant to varying degrees.
Helping is a dynamic act, consisting of giving and receiving and we must understand and respect the boundaries of others in each unique situation and honor our own limitation and choices as valid.
Giving thought to what is best at every juncture, may not be easy, but at this stage of our lives, I think it may be essential.
I’ll try to keep it all in mind when the next phone call or message carrying bad news arrives, remembering that my own cup isn’t as full as it once was and doing my best from now on to hold just enough in reserve to also care for me.