Standing On the Shoulders of Those That Came Before Us

The social work field is ripe with the sentiment of bitterness towards those benefiting from social services. It’s shocking to me how many people I’ve worked with since entering the field a few years ago who are extremely conservative. I’ve only ever worked for non-profits that serve low-income populations. Most of the clients I’ve met have been on Medicaid and receiving Social Security benefits. While I’ve always supported these social safety nets and been happy to see them helping people, it seems like many other people feel differently.

It can be frustrating at times. You do meet a handful of people that seem to be taking advantage. You certainly meet tons of people that, while unable to support themselves, continue to have a new baby every year. The longer people remain in the social work field, the more cynical and bitter they become because of this. I’ve even caught myself getting angry about it from time to time. There are days where it really does seem unfair that I have to work to support people that don’t appear to be trying at all. (It’s easy to forget that a far larger portion of our taxes go to prop up monstrous corporations through subsidies and fuel the endless, bloated war machine.)

I thought occurred to me the other night though that completely obliterated all of my irritation and frustration with those “doing less than me.” I considered for a moment all of the wonderful technology that I benefit from every single day. I thought of the medical advancements, the free vaccines, our libraries, public roads and parks, volunteer fire departments, the electrical grid, etc. I have not done a single thing to deserve these incredible human achievements. I have not contributed to them in any way. Yet thanks to my fellow humans, to all of the generations that came before me, I get to live a life of extravagance and luxury unimaginable to most people of the past.

What a humbling realization. What a miracle to behold. What gratitude I have for this life I am able to lead through the superior intelligence and selflessness of others. Imagine if our forefathers had acted with the disdain we have today for those “milking the system.” We like to imagine that we are self-made, that we have earned our place in society through hard work and personal achievement. Have we though? Even your own accomplishments are in large part thanks to the family that raised you and your environment/opportunities throughout life. Things that we have little to no control over. Why should others be looked down upon or made to struggle because of the arbitrary hand they have been dealt?

So if you’re one to get frustrated and feel as though you are carrying the “undesirables” of society or that people on government assistance “don’t deserve it” remember all of the people that have helped you get to where you are. The least we can do is be of service to others when we have been given so very much by our families and all of the incredible, amazingly intelligent and generous humans that have laid the foundation for the incredible society we have today. These systems that we have in place to help those in need are one of the most beautiful examples of human kindness there is. We should all feel honored to contribute and grateful that we aren’t the ones in need of this help.

Social Programs Can Sometimes Turn a Profit for Taxpayers - The New York  Times

Altruism

For the majority of my life, I’ve considered myself a pretty selfish person. It’s not something I’m proud of or anything, just something I’ve recognized about myself. As I get older, I identify with that label less and less. I am still definitely more selfish and self-obsessed than a lot of the people I know, but not nearly as much as my past self. I think selfishness is something we all grow out of to some extent as we grow older. Although I’m not really sure why that is.

As far as my own personality goes, I think I’ve changed because the more I’ve experienced in life, the more I’ve learned that it feels good to be “selfless.” I say that almost ironically, because I’m not really sure if there truly are selfless acts in this world. Regardless of what our reasoning might be, we all have our own motives for doing everything that we do. In the end I truly believe that we are all connected anyway. We are all one. So by helping others, we are also helping ourselves. Even if in the moment it looks as though we’ve put ourselves at risk or denied ourselves something for the sake of another, all that truly means is that we value the way it feels to help more than whatever it is we may lose in the process. I just think some people are a little bit more honest and in tune with their intentions than others.

I don’t want this to sound cynical. I’m not trying to argue that no one is motivated by anything other than self interest. There is nothing wrong with feeling good about helping someone else. I think it’s quite beautiful even. It’s just one of the many ways this world provides us with a perfectly symbiotic relationship with all other life. It’s so bizarre to think that what was once a playground taunt “what goes around comes around” has actually been a profound truth all along. I’m not sure how I feel about karma because it is more focused on past lives. However, I do believe that we can feel the direct impacts of our own actions coming back to us in this life.

The real reason I wanted to talk about this idea today is because of the impact it can have on our mental health. It seems like despite the sunny warm weather returning, my mental health hasn’t improved like it usually does around this time of year. I’m not sure whether it’s because of this ongoing pandemic or what I’ve learned about our oceans recently, but something has been weighing on me quite heavily this past year. Yesterday, my best friend since third grade messaged me and expressed that she has been feeling the exact same ways that I have. Her anxiety has been worse than ever, she’s having panic attacks, depressive episodes, fits of rage, etc. While it truly broke my heart to hear how much she’s been struggling, comforting her did help me remember something very important that I’d nearly forgotten.

Sometimes when we are drowning in mental illness and focusing on all of our problems, it becomes hard to think about anything or anyone else. We get sucked into this painful, self-defeating vortex. Although it may seem impossible in these moments, one of the best ways to pull ourselves out is to try to focus on others for awhile. Even though it feels like you have nothing left to give, give anyway. One of my favorite quotes is, “the heart that gives, gathers.” A simple, yet powerful truth. There is nothing more uplifting or fulfilling than being of service to others, especially those you love. It’s nice to feel needed, to feel that you are a valuable part of someone else’s life, to see that you are capable of contributing to the lives of your friends, your family, your community.

When you fixate on something, it often grows and becomes larger and larger the longer you do. The same goes for your problems. A day spent focusing solely on my anxiety level is guaranteed to be a difficult day. As I spent hours on the phone with my friend last night, my own anxiety couldn’t have been further from my mind. I was even grateful for my own experiences with mental illness as it allowed me to better understand my friend’s suffering. I was so happy to be able to be there for her.

We briefly discussed the idea of “burdening” others with your distress or personal issues. Both of us have a tendency to be hesitant to speak up about our problems to those we love. It seems cruel to make them share our pain, even if it would lighten the load for us and provide much needed comfort. Even though I often feel this way, I do believe there is also another way to look at it. Perhaps it is a gift to share our troubles with our loved ones. After all, I didn’t feel burdened by talking to my friend about her struggles yesterday. I felt honored and thankful that she would come to me for help. It made me feel better to help her feel better. It is a beautiful experience of bonding and trust to be vulnerable with someone else.

The next time I am starting to feel overwhelmed by my own inner world, I want to remember what my friend reminded me yesterday by coming to me with her despair. I don’t need to be afraid to also share my difficulties. And even more importantly than that, sometimes the best remedy for those difficulties is shifting my focus to helping someone else instead. To remind myself that there is so much more in this world than my own suffering, that I am capable of more than suffering. I am even capable of easing the suffering of others, and that is something I am truly grateful for.





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Seeking Redemption

Last night I dreamt about possibly the biggest mistake I ever made in my past. I woke up feeling weighed down by all those heavy memories. All morning I have been feeling ashamed and unworthy of redemption. When I think about terrible, selfish things I’ve done there are at least a handful of things that readily come to mind. Yet when I try to think of caring, kind, selfless acts, my mind goes blank. Am I really this awful person that I perceive myself to be? Or is my perception skewed?

I think most people make justifications and excuses for the wrong they’ve done. They allow these rationalizations to comfort their conscience. My mind tries to tell me that everyone makes mistakes, that I was young and na├»ve, that I would never want to hurt anyone. But I refuse these ideas outright. I feel at my core that I deserve condemnation for my actions, that if anyone knew me like I know myself, they would cast me out, and rightfully so.

Some people argue that altruism doesn’t really exist. Even kind acts are beneficial to the bearer. Yet most people, I imagine, still feel confident in their goodness after performing a good dead. I on the other hand, view the kind things I’ve done as others view their misdeeds. I minimize them. I explain them away. I tell myself that I’ve done these things out of my own self-interest. I deny any altruistic intentions.

What I’m left with is the guilt and blame of all the wrong I’ve done and none of the credit for anything decent in my past. Most people are shocked when they discover that I think so little of myself. “You are a good person,” they tell me, “You are so kind and compassionate!” But I shrink away from these reassurances. They don’t really know me, I tell myself. Then I feel even more guilty for deceiving them. It is a very lonely life, feeling unknown and unknowable.

I suppose there is really no way for me to truly know if the image I hold of myself is accurate. It might all come back to the grey areas I struggle so much with. Perhaps I am a bad, selfish person, but also a caring, loving one. Even so, I desperately want to atone for all the wrong that I have done, even though I am the only one who knows about a lot of it. I want to live a life that I can be proud of. I don’t want to keep lamenting these mistakes. I want to be freed from the sins of my past. I want redemption for myself, from myself.

I am grateful that I have the principles of yoga to guide me. Even though I feel a lot of the Yamas and Niyamas are out of my reach, beyond my capabilities, I still want to try to embody them. I want to become honest and upright, truthful and generous, thoughtful and helpful. I know that happiness lies within these virtues. I must believe that, regardless of my past failings, I am strong enough, I am intelligent enough, to change.

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