There’s nothing worse than watching someone you love struggle with a difficult situation. You feel helpless – nothing you say or do feels right, everything you say and do just seems to make it worse, and you rack your brain trying to figure out what to DO. But nothing works. And you desperately want to DO something. You want to make it go away. You want to fix it. But you can’t.
Like most people this time of year, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to balance real life and the expectations of the holidays. There is a lot of pressure to be merry and bright amidst the realities of work, family, financial struggles, medical challenges, caregiving, you name it. Real life doesn’t go away just because we put up a cheerful Christmas tree, get the wreath hung just right, and mail out the festive cards. But I realized something this holiday season that has changed everything for me and it was just too good not to share.
We can give ourselves the gift of knowing that we have the power of choice.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately with people about selfishness vs. selflessness. When I asked one friend why we surround ourselves with selfish people, she said, “Because the planet might implode if you and I act like that. Or not.” When I told another friend about changes I was making in my life, she said, “Hmm. That sounds…selfish.” Another friend in a bad situation tells me that she has come to a solution: she will just be completely selfless and then everyone will be happy.
Here’s what counseling has taught me: a person can only be completely selfless for so long before they implode and go to the dark (selfish) side. And do something they will regret because they are so NOT selfish people at heart. The problem is, you don’t realize the price you pay when you give up your own needs and wants for someone else’s. So what to do?
Someone I used to trust once told me that you have to know what you want. I spent a year trying to figure that out and always came up against a brick wall. I couldn’t figure out why. Until now.
How can you know what you want if you don’t know who you are?
It’s not just about what you want. That is starting in the wrong place.
When I studied fiction in graduate school at Columbia College Chicago, we focused heavily on objects. When brainstorming or warming up for writing exercises in our four-hour evening classes, after long days at work and home and caring for families and tending to our lives, we were asked to visualize what objects were in a given space that we wanted to write about.
This is how I came to see the power of objects in fiction and life.
Disclaimer: I am not one who saves things. I am the one who always smacks myself in the head three days after pitching something I realize I needed. When I was young, my mother gave me objects to show her affection. It was her way. A Virgin Mary statue that she made in ceramics. A coffee cup with my name on it and a different adjective for each letter in my name (still have that one). Bookmarks. We had a difficult relationship. I came to see objects and gifts as something to be wary of.
This weekend I was running errands with my *almost* twelve-year-old daughter. We needed to return two chairs that didn’t work in our new house. As I was placing one in the shopping cart, I turned to find her trying her best to lift the other chair out of the back of my truck.
“Hey!” I said. “That’s heavy! Let me help you with that.”
“No, I got it,” she said firmly.
Her thin arms shook as she lifted it out. I let her try to put it into the shopping cart, but when it started rolling away, I had to jump in. She was pissed. But as we walked into the store, I watched her carefully, my only daughter and the youngest of my two kids. She tries so hard to be tough and has never cared for big shows of affection. When she was two, she would say “good-bye” when I tucked her in and roll over and go to sleep! It was disconcerting, to say the least, especially after raising her brother, who couldn’t get enough hugging and snuggling at bedtime. As she got older, she stopped hugging me back and would simply stand there with her arms limp by her side. I always accepted it as ‘how she was wired’ and let it go. Her father is the same way. I chalked it up to genetics and didn’t want to try to change her or make her uncomfortable.