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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Priorities

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I feel I may have revealed a bit too much of myself to my coworkers this morning. When I get nervous, or in this case, excited, talking to people I’ll often say things without thinking. I went to college with someone we used to work with, although neither of us ever really acknowledged it. I mentioned that I thought this other woman probably disliked me because she was an overachiever in college, going to fundraisers, very active in all of our psychology clubs, etc. I, on the other hand, was somewhat of a slacker. I did the bear minimum that was required of me. I was a member of Psi Chi, but basically only so I could put it on my resume, I never went to meetings or anything. I didn’t even go to my own induction ceremony. I blame that one on social anxiety though.

Everyone seemed to get a kick out of hearing about my college memories, but I immediately began to regret being so honest. I’m often afraid that my coworkers will get irritated with me for being lazy or a slacker. Now I feel like I’ve given them even more proof of my poor character, more proof that they’re right to think that. I don’t really picture myself as lazy though. I guess I’d describe it more as selfish. Maybe that’s even worse, now that I think about it.

The thing is, I get a lot done everyday. I have dozens of tasks that I diligently complete day in and day out. The problem is that none of these things really matter to anyone but me. The rest of the world could care less if I study Spanish or workout and do yoga for hours or read. These are all personal endeavors. Ideally they are things that are about self-improvement. But in what ways am I really trying to improve myself? To who’s benefit? It’s probably time for me to reevaluate my priorities.

Since I entered the working world, my mindset has always been me against them. The working poor, against the corporate machine. Even though I must partake in this system to survive, to play the game, it always felt like an act of rebellion to do as little as I could get away with doing. If I was going to be paid nothing, I was going to do as close to nothing as possible. Spiteful, yes, but in my mind it only felt fair. If I didn’t matter to the place I worked, then they didn’t matter to me. This is a mantra that for so many years I burned into my heart and mind. Always playing the part of the petulant child.

I never expected to find myself working for a place that I do genuinely care about. A place that also seems to genuinely care about me. I work with such incredible people. I don’t want to let them down. I love my job. I love what I do. I believe in what we do. I want to be helpful. I want to prove that I am worthy of having a place here. But no matter how many times I resolve to do better, I always find myself falling back into old patterns. Shirking my responsibilities just because I can, because it’s even easier to do here where no one is breathing down my neck, micromanaging my every step. Everything in me, everything about who I’ve been, keeps tempting me to take advantage of that. It’s nearly irresistible.

I am tired of feeling guilty. I am tired of feeling like I am letting everyone down. I am tired of feeling like I am taking advantage of an organization that is truly a benefit to this world. I really want to go above and beyond what is asked of me here. I have a lot of ideas too. I know I am smart. I know I could really make a positive impact for this organization, for the kids we see here everyday. I could really help them. I’ve just always been afraid of showing my full potential. Any other job would take advantage of that. I’ve seen it happen to my mother and my sister. I’m also afraid that I won’t be able to live up to the standard I set for myself. I’m afraid I’ll crack under the pressure of always doing my best. When no one expects anything of you, there is no pressure, it’s easy to impress when/if you need to.

After working here for a year and a half though, I think I finally feel safe enough to show my true colors, to really contribute as much as I can. Self-improvement may once have looked like only inner work, but now I think it looks like giving back, sharing my intelligence and creativity with those that will be able to benefit from it, to be an asset to my friends and coworkers, to finally utilize this freedom and agency at work to be all I can be. I know I can do this. I want to do this. I’m going to enjoy doing this.

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Helping Others Help Themselves

This evening I have been talking with an old friend. He will often send me photos of our group from high school and remark forlornly about how much he misses those days. I understand the sentiment. I miss those days too. It can be hard to accept how different and lonely life can be as an adult. I genuinely feel for this friend and often find myself wishing there was some way that I could help him to be happy again with the life he now lives.

Today has been especially difficult in this regard. My friend expressed to me that he doesn’t believe he will ever be happy, just less sad. My heart breaks for this kind soul that I have known for so many years. His dejected state reminds me painfully of who I used to be as a teenager, believing I would never find happiness. Even though I’m not where I would like to be in life, I have still been able to carve out my own unique sense of wellbeing and contentment.

There have been many times since noticing this change within myself, this awakening to my power over my own happiness, that I have desperately longed to somehow be able to share this new point of view with others that are still suffering. Yet somehow there never seem to be any words that I could deem fitting to do so. There are lots of things that helped me to heal, primarily yoga and meditation. But I hesitate to even offer these solutions. I can’t help but cringe internally as I imagine how I would have once felt receiving the same sort of advice.

I had been on the other side of this encounter many times in the past. When you are depressed and feeling hopeless, it is frustrating to keep hearing: “have you tried meditation?” “You can make your own happiness!” “Just focus on all the things you have to be grateful for.” In that state of mind, I always felt these suggestions were more like a slap in the face than practical options. It just made me feel more alone. It felt like no one was listening, like no one understood. One of the things my mom used to always tell me when I was younger and having one of my many existential crises comes to mind. Essentially she would tell me not to worry about all the big problems I saw in my life, my past and my future, but to focus on the small everyday joys like hearing the birds chirping outside my window, or having a hot cup of coffee on a cold Sunday morning while watching the snow blanket the world in a crisp, bright whiteness. I can still remembering being incensed by this. What did any of those things matter in comparison to my problems? A cup of coffee isn’t enough to make a happy life. Chirping birds don’t make me feel any less alone.

Yet now all of the things I once considered useless platitudes have become so poignant and meaningful to me. It is wild to juxtapose these two parallel perspectives inside me. I was so grateful to have the chance to tell my mom that I finally understand what she was trying to say. The problem is that I don’t know what it was that got it to click. I don’t have an answer for why I am able to see life so differently now. I keep racking my brain for that answer, but always come up empty. I’ve even tried to imagine what I could say to my sixteen-year-old self that would have helped her. Sadly, I feel like there isn’t anything I could have said.

When you decide that you are miserable and you will never be able to be happy, there isn’t much anyone else can do to change that. I wish there was. When feeling sad and lonely becomes part of your identity, part of your own idea of who you are, it is hard to get away from that. It’s similar to an addiction. If an addict doesn’t want to stop using, nothing anyone else does is going to help in the end. The most crucial step in recovery is deciding that you want to recover. And just like some addicts need to hit rock bottom to finally get to that point, that is also what it felt like it took for me to change. I finally had had enough. I couldn’t stand to feel so miserable any more. Then something inside of me finally let go and I realized it was up to me to decide how I was going to feel. I began to truly believe that it was my choice, and that I could choose to be happy if I really wanted to.

The problem I keep being faced with is how to help others make that shift in consciousness. I just cannot accept that there is no way to do so even though that honestly seems like the hard truth. But maybe telling people my story can help in some way. Although I can already imagine teenage Rachel rolling her eyes at anyone having told me this story. “Well they didn’t really know what it’s like to feel this way. They could never understand my situation.” But I am going to keep telling it anyway in the hopes that maybe it can help someone. There is no easy fix for feeling alone and depressed. It takes a lot of work. Everyday. I haven’t stopped that work and I know I never will. But the point is it’s worth it, it’s possible. The bad news is no one else can do it for you. The good news is you can do it all by yourself. You are capable. You are powerful. Even if one person can’t change the world. You can change your own world. I hope you do.

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