Not Cruel, Freeing


A friend of mine joined the choir at her church awhile back. After a few months of stressing out over making sure she was always on time for each practice and recital, one of her fellow singers made an off-hand comment saying “We made due without you, we’ll be OK if you’re not here.

At first glance this seems a bit cruel. Our minds race through the iterations of the saying until we distill the message out: We don’t need you. We’re OK without you. You could fall off a cliff and we would just go on. Pretty mean. However once you realize what this statement actually brings with it, logically, you find it immensely freeing.

The World Revolves Around Me

Don’t misunderstand my title above – often we accuse the narcissists around us of believing the world revolves around their every whim. I’m not talking about that sort of egocentric view – I’m talking about the far more likely state of affairs – that we fall into believing the world needs us personally.

It starts innocently enough. You volunteer for some task no one else wants, and you do a good job. People praise you for this, and you feel good because you helped out. You keep helping out, and keep getting praised for your excellent ability. In psychology we’d call this “positive reinforcement”. For many of us, this happens at an early age: Teachers praise your hard work. Parent’s boast about it. Friends envy (err… esteem) it.

As you grow up, you follow this pattern for a bunch of activities: At work, you do your job as well as you possibly can. At home, you pride yourself on taking good care of your household. In civic groups you volunteer for things you’re good at. You want to be helpful, so you do nice things, and people compliment you for it. And you feel good too – intrinsic motivation. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing – until you fall into the trap.

OMG… I have blank and blank and blank and….

One day you wake up and realize you’ve got a horribly busy day ahead. Work requires a bunch of your time, the house needs attention, and you’ve got two volunteer activities that night that you’ll somehow pull off. It’s about that time that you realize you’re not feeling so good. Pull out the thermometer and… Congratulations – you have the flu.

Now at this point you’ve got two choices: Either make a few calls and go back to bed, or POWER THROUGH. And what will you do? Well if you’re like most people who like to be helpful, you figure “I don’t have time to be sick!” and you get up. You dope yourself up on whatever you need (Dayquil anyone?), drink lots of fluids, and hobble through your day. You repeat this every time you get sick, or get tired, or get double or triple booked.

Letting Go

I’m just hanging on, while this old world keeps spinning, and it’s good to know it’s out of my control. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from all this living, it’s that it wouldn’t change a thing if I let go

– Jimmy Buffett, Trip around the Sun

So what does happen if you just make a few calls, tell people you’re sick, and go back to bed? The world goes on. It goes on without you, and that’s fine. Once you realize this, you realize that you can take time for yourself when you need to, and hopefully start moving toward a guilt-free attitude. This doesn’t mean you’re going to become a slacker who doesn’t care at all – it means you’re going to acknowledge that you’re human, that you aren’t immortal, and that the world will survive without you.This is, once properly processed, the freedom from the guilt incurred by  holding up yourself to an impossible standard.

Personally I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now and still haven’t gotten around to doing it completely – it’s really tough when you pride yourself on being, well, tough. But if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be tough for long. Go ahead – be a super person who takes on as much as you can to help others – but also help yourself. Find peace in the fact that the world went on before you, and will after you’re gone.

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