Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's Not About You

All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanting pleasure for oneself. –Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

I just retired from teaching in a professional school. On the first day of class every year, I would tell my students, “Until now, your education has been about you, enriching your life, broadening your horizons. Beginning today, it is not about you anymore. It is about the people you will serve with the knowledge you gain here. Everything you learn here is learned for the purpose of helping someone else. Your responsibility to them begins today and requires you to do your best now, because someone someday will be depending on you.”

In spite of this hopefully motivating wisdom I imparted to my students, I have often lived my own life as if it is all about me. Those are not my happiest times. I’m thinking back now to a very difficult time I was going through years ago. A significant relationship was ending badly, very badly. Naturally, this was entirely the other person’s fault. I was consumed by hurt and vengeance, and furiously self-righteous as the victim I perceived myself to be. As the rancorous disentanglement proceeded, I obsessed about each detail, going over everything again and again, fueling my soul’s turmoil. Worse, I made all my friends listen to every detail, yes, again and again.

Finally, one day I realized that I was stuck. I was not moving on or healing or processing or anything. I was saying the same things over and over. I was so bored with myself. Goodness knows, my patient friends must have been bored for ages. I knew I needed to get unstuck, but my grip on my misery was so rigid I could not pry my claws out of it.

About that time I saw an announcement about a volunteer opportunity which involved helping other people by becoming a trained spiritual companion. Not a therapist or a minister, but a person trained to “walk beside” a person who was having difficulty. I signed up and went through the training. I learned that the care relationship was not about me, but about the person needing my attention. I learned to put myself aside and listen to someone else. Really listen. After the training was complete, I had care receivers. The time I spent helping someone else was time I was not spending thinking about my own problems. What a relief! Amazingly, the more I helped other people, the smaller my own problems became. I was happier both because I wasn’t wallowing in self pity, and also because I was being of service to others.

It doesn’t require a time investment as large as the training I underwent. All it takes is a willingness to put yourself aside just long enough to do something nice for someone else. You will both be happier–double benefit!

If you want to make others happy, practice compassion. If you want to make yourself happy, practice compassion. –The Dalai Lama


  1. You always think your problems are the worst until you find someone who has worse problems than you. Puts yours in perspective.

    I hear you on the "boring the friends" with the constant dribble of "whoa is me". So I've stopped. It occurred to me that they have problems too and they don't need to listen to my self pity. I know we all need someone to vent to, but after a while, when nothing is going anywhere and you're hearing the same thing over and over, it gets laborious. I didn't think that was fair to them. Why add more stress to their already stressed out life?

    I've come to the conclusion, if I'm that unhappy, then do something about it. So that's what I'm doing. It's taking small steps, but I'm slowly gaining on that goal.

  2. So so true. But really hard to do as well... especially when difficulties in your life are protracted. My mother had a little book which used to intrigue me. On the cover read the words "When supply seems to have failed, you must know that it has not done so. But you must look around to see what you can give away. Give away something" Somehow those words kind of stuck coming back to remind me what I had to do when things got tough.

    Enjoyed this post Galen. It was honest and open and very well written. Thank you.

  3. Thanks you for your thoughts today; this was a great post. I recall feeling the same about a relationship in my earlier years. Once I became a Hospice Home Health Nurse I could put those thoughts in perspective and focus on what really matters; the individual and families that I worked with. I was able to forgive not only the person but myself.
    Much of this also came through prayers.
    Blessings to you!

  4. It sounds very much like the Stephen Ministry program. I went through their rather intensive training and became a care giver. Later I became our church's Stephen Leader and taught the training program to two sets of new folks.

    The ability to gain someone's trust enough for him to share personal hurts and fears, and then help him work through those issues can be life-changing for both the care receiver and the Stephen Minister. Your personal problems always pale in comparison to what real pain and suffering the other person is going through.

  5. ryoko--Yes, I cringe now when I think of how I only talked about my own life for so long, and only the negative aspects on top of that. Good for you for taking samll steps. They will add up quickly!

    Jean--What an interesting book. Do you happen to remember the title?

    LeAnn--Yes, learning to pray, and even trying to "pray wihout ceasing" has been a grounding and healing practice.

    Bob--Indeed I was referring to Stephen Ministry. I was an active Stephen Minister for several years. It is a wonderful program.

  6. Everytime I think I'm not being selfish, I usually look back 1-2 years later and realize I still was. I guess it's one of those things that are unconscious.

    On another note- one of the reasons I became a counselor is to be able to help others...why not make it a day-job if I can? :)

  7. What a wonderful comment to start a school year with. It is really very true...I wonder how many of your students that may not have listened to your words at the time, look back now, as they are a bit older, and have your comments finally resonating with them

  8. Galen - A beautifully written post!

    Down through the years I thought at the time that I was not a selfish person. Now with the hindsight of many years observation I realize I was selfish to some extent.

    An unknown author once said " “It is lack of love for ourselves that inhibits our compassion toward others. If we make friends with ourselves, then there is no obstacle to opening our hearts and minds to others.”

    During my early years when my family was young, my mother was very sick and I gave up time with my family to help care for her. Sometimes I resented being pulled away, but finally I saw that it was a lack of love for myself that the resentment was coming from and learned a great lesson in compassion.

  9. Galen,
    This is such a great discussion - as it truly is in helping others that we can receive healing ourselves. I'm reminded of a healing service I volunteered at, and in my being there for others...I felt a deep sense of healing myself (and it was completely unexpected).

    I'm also reminded of a program my wife was involved in a number of years ago - Stephen ministries - which was about walking beside those who were in need of healing, on a very personal level. Deeply meaningful what you are doing...

  10. Michelle--Interesting how we look back and see things differently than at the time, isn't it? Your job must be very satisfying. Thanks for your comment.

    Beverley--I think many of the students do remember. I end the year by reinfocing the message as well, so hopefully it sinks in!

    Ellene--Like Michelle commented, hindsight gives us a different perspective. Thank you for the quote and for the story about your family. Those decisions are always hard. However, your kids saw you honoring your mother and caring for her. I'm sure that made a deep impression.

    Lance--The program I described was indeed a Stephen Ministry program. My church also has a Taize healing service. Is that the kind of service you volunteered for? It's a lovely service. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Hi Galen,
    "Sharing & caring" has been a long held motto of mine. If more people cared & shared themselves, the world would be a happier place.
    However a little selfishness for yourself is required. If you are not 'up to the mark'then your caring & sharing will be diluted.
    Be good to yourself

  12. Wonderful post you have shared sweet lady. Somewhere along the way I read a quote that went something like this "Do something wonderful for someone else today....and you will make two people happy.". You summed this up perfectly.



  13. Practice compassion...yes if we used those two words in every thing we do...especially those moments in the day when we might be feeling a bit of a pity party coming why do I always pull the most weight....yeah practice compassion... I can see those two simple but powerful words pulling me through every single thing that! thanks for these two words of wisdom...!

  14. David--Caring and sharing. That's easy to remember. Thanks for your comment!

    Jo--I love that quote and I'm going to use it! Thanks!

    Karen--I like your simplified version. You and David have focused on short reminders--caring and sharing, and practice compassion--that will help us all focus outside ourselves. Thanks!

  15. Galen, your story illustrates clearly that we must let go of our resentments if we want to move on with our lives in a positive fashion, as you have done so admirably. It helps when we are able to accept that we played some part in our struggles or "injustices".

    Thank you,

  16. Danny--You are so right. With time, I was able to see my part in what had happened. Thanks for your comment.

  17. I have spent the last year attempting to put myself first - as I have put nearly everyone, every project, every need that came up ahead of myself. I needed to be a good person.

    Then my body stopped me...I confused giving up my problems with solving them...for others...I gained a great deal of wisdom, but applying this to my self has been a difficult row to hoe.

    I will probably never retire...and I have to find a new job now because I have no income...
    so I am creating a job that hopefully will fill me up at the same time as care for others.

    Compassion with I need to find it for myself and be as gentle and loving as possible

  18. Hey Galen. I think it's true that the more you help and give value to other people, the more abundance flows into your own life.

    Thanks for a great article.

  19. Patricia--I hope you do find that balance. You have commented several times about needing to take care of yourself. I'd like to hear more about the job you are creating.

    Andrew--Thanks for your comment. Isn't it great that both the giver and the receiver benefit?!


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