I picked up the old popsicle stick on my desk and it began to speak to me: “Don’t forget this large learning,” the stick said. “You still haven’t quite got it!”
A memory came alive: a weekend workshop connected with trying to save my 15-year-old stepdaughter who had gotten caught in drugs, sex, etc. (a story in itself). Families of teens with similar problems were learning principles and attitudes that the young people were being taught in their program. We’d been together now for two days doing various activities; some participants had stepped forward willing to lead things, others had contributed valuably, or quietly. We now somewhat knew each other.
For this activity we stood in a large circle, about 100 people. The setting of the game was that we are on a sinking ship – There is only one lifeboat! Only seven of us can be saved! WHO SHOULD BE CHOSEN FOR THE LIFEBOAT? We were each given 7 popsicle sticks, and one-by-one we went around the circle and gave out our seven sticks to whomever we felt most important to save. In the end, then, those with the most sticks stood forward as the ones to step into the lifeboat. I had 3: – my son, my daughter-in-law and someone else had given me my ticket for life. But, of course, it wasn’t enough.
Then, the game leader asked us the most important question of the game:
How many of you gave yourself a popsicle stick?
I had not; hardly anyone had!
“Do you not value your own life? Do you not believe you have something important yet to give?” the leader asked.
I’ve kept the three popsicle sticks and this valuable lesson for 25 years. Today they came rising to the top of my thoughts.
I was preparing for a visit from a dear friend at 1:00. When 1:00 arrived, she texted me that the friend of her morning visit was more needy of her counseling than she had anticipated, she couldn’t get to my house until 3:00. At first, I said “Okay,” though my day had already been planned around her visit and now had to be re-arranged again. I had other urgent work to attend to. Suddenly something arose in me with the power of an unexpected storm: I politely texted her my regrets: “We will have to meet some other time.” That felt right to me in my body! And I enthusiastically lit into the project I really wanted to work on.
I felt energized. I was choosing to act from inside my own creative center rather than bending-this-way-and-that to accommodate the needs of others. I felt powerful, and was affirming for myself that what comes from inside me is valuable. I usually live by the image of a sailboat, cooperating with “Life” as it comes to me. But now I felt like I was rowing – and I loved it! I love feeling strong and on my way! Yes, watching the wind and the waves but directing my boat with my own muscles, low enough in this self-directed boat that the wind cannot affect my direction as easily. Sailboats are beautiful but delicate; they require alertness but not much human power. One is less sure in a sailboat regarding where one is going to arrive.
I’ve learned to pay attention to my guts when I make decisions. The wrong/less-healthy decision causes stress. The best decision – whether it’s for me first or someone else first – the best decision leaves me in peace. One excellent word of advice I heard about decision-making is to say to myself “I DO know the best decision. Yes, I do know.” And then – see it.
Echoes of cultural ideals can still haunt me. The word “selfish” scares me! This judgment that choosing my own needs first over others makes me a bad person confuses the idea of equality and of who is responsible for what. Am I my brother’s keeper? Or is my brother the first one responsible for himself? Am I obliged by the word “love” to rescue every drowning person? I do care about every drowning person! But I think now I understand the word “compassion.” I used to think that word was an excuse for spiritual people to sit and meditate while doing nothing to actually help. Now after years of trying to help others and sacrificing myself, I see differently. I CANNOT HELP EVERYONE! There are people I seem called by life to be present with. But even for them, they have much to do for themselves! Generally, helping others involves watching attentively and offering just the minimum needed for a person to succeed for themselves. Each of us is the first line of responsibility for the life we’ve been given. ”Rescuing” is not necessarily love and compassion. And who will rescue the rescuer whose attention and values are not on their own life?
I’ve mentioned this before in my writings: it appears to me that the current major religions of the world are all designed for the spiritual needs of men. They all call us toward ever greater unselfishness as we grow older. Even the image of a hero is of a person risking self for the well-being of others. For me as a woman, I feel that everything in life taught me to think of the needs of others from the time I was very little. And giving birth, most of all! To bring a completely helpless life into the world through my own body and suffering: Nature created this method to teach women unselfish love for the wellbeing of life. “Being kind” comes second nature to me, and I believe this reality fits for many women and some men. But little boys are often encouraged – even pushed – to get out there on their own and make a path. Cooperation and thinking of others first are not what will get a man ahead: pushing through the crowd to the top is the first goal. Then, as a man matures, he begins to think more carefully and value his place in an egalitarian way. We need our religions to help us think through what real love looks like all along. To love one’s neighbor as one’s self requires FIRST that one loves oneself! If we let others walk all over us, then – would we do that to others?
Perhaps it’s the hardest thing in the world to observe someone we love choosing poorly for themselves, at least what seems to us making poor choices. To respect that the other owns their life like one owns a house – this is their property, and I can affect it only if they ask or allow me to touch it. To watch the house of a loved one tumbling down is terrible! But we must respect the ownership of others, what they value, what they want, what they choose. We are all here learning and learning more, by our own choices.
Sometimes I’ve observed that when I put the needs of others first, I’m actually avoiding my own life! To take up my life and make it beautiful – Why not? What a loss to the world if I don’t! Yes, I belong in that lifeboat as much as anyone else and I am going to ROW that lifeboat! You will see me land and leave my footprints behind me, as I go on living and exploring in the Universe.