“I don’t like getting old because I can’t do the things I want to do,” she says, tears dripping from her puffy red eyes. She puts down her McDonald’s double cheeseburger and wipes a tear off her cheek. She inhales deeply and sighs. My heart sinks three floors and free falls toward an infinite bottom.
So often I find myself in these situations. The kind where a stabbing pain shoots through my heart because I want someone else’s life circumstance to be better than what it is; because I love that person; because mine was better.
Nature vs. Nurture
I’m not sure how I got so lucky. I remember studying psychology in high school and college. They taught us that it’s not clear whether success in life (having a steady, livable income and housing, food to eat, and a somewhat happy existence and freedom of choice) is dictated by one’s nature (genes and the biology you’re born with, and entirely out of your control) or nurture (the people who guided you, and the environment in which you were raised). Obvious to me, it’s a combination of both, they go hand and hand. I think there is more to it than that. There is a third factor: choice.
Now it seems that life is so much more complicated. It’s hard to know where mental illness starts and over-whelmed by the increasing complexity of the world in which we live begins. Some of us are born into poverty and somehow make it out of that and into relative success. My personal story begins in poverty and mental illness, but I am writing it, here and now. I am making my own success, and part of that was a direct result of my choices, and being brave enough to try, but I believe part of my luck was the “nurture.”
We need each other
At eight months I was very fortunate to be placed into the care of one of the kindest women I believe will ever exist. She nurtured me exclusively for about two years when I was in her care as a foster child. Until her passing when I was seventeen, I spent at least a week or more visiting her, cleaning her house, playing in the woods, building forts, and all sorts of tom-boyish activities. She used to tell me, "you're so beautiful." In church she would write "Heather my love" on the corners of the service bulletin. I miss her.
At eight years I was once again rescued by an aunt who needed rescuing too. We make a great team, to this day, and I owe the earliest and most influential of my spiritual and life guidance to her wisdom and experiences. Plain and simple, we need others to guide us, to love us, to nurture us.
Sitting with my grandmother in that McDonalds, my brother on the back of a pickup truck, my sister way up in a Magnolia tree, my aunt fuming in her truck cab, my mother in her resting place around my grandfather’s oak tree along with the sweetest cat it broke my heart not to take home with me, I realized; we need each other. Humans need each other; to stand up for each other, and to show they care. An easy Small Act: show you care, be there, do a good deed, be kind. Don’t take people for granted.
It’s easy to be grateful when you’ve got it made
I can wake up each day and express gratitude to the universe because my life is pretty easy. It’s easy for me to be kind to others and lend a hand because I have everything I need. Any problems I come across, for the most part, nowadays, are invented problems about some inconvenience or something not going my way. What about people who have hardly anything? Who’re overweight and in poor health and “can’t do anything” because the lifestyle they were “nutured” into made that the norm? The extremely depressed young woman who can’t talk about it for fear of rejection? The homeless young man who can’t keep a job because all his parental figures lived the same way and abused him? It’s not so easy to be grateful or kind then.
The environment we grow up in and the biology forced on us have a huge impact on the habitual choices we are likely to make. However, we all have free will. We can choose to live a life differently than the one that seems to have been laid before us. Our power is in our choice. It only takes one Small Act at a time to change our course, if we so desire. Whether that be taking the steps to go to college to get out of a crappy town or helping reduce your contribution to climate change, it happens because we take the small steps toward the outcome we want.
Be open. Be Honest
Sometimes it’s hard to make a choice. When is the right time? How do I know if this is the right choice? Given other possible difficult circumstances in one’s life, is making a specific choice best for me or am I just being selfish? If someone is depressed or homeless, do they even have the mental ability to make a healthy choice?
As I’ve said before, and I’ll probably say many other times, set the intention and detach from the outcome. Easy? No. Possible? With practice, yes. Open your heart to seeing the sign you need to make a difficult choice, but first explore what you really want. Maybe that is as simple as, “help me figure out what I want.” I've learned the important part of this is to be honest with myself. It’s easy to trick myself into believing I want something or can handle something that, deep down, I know I can’t handle or don’t really want. Honesty, by examining my own thoughts, feelings, and intentions, is a Small Act worth practicing daily. It teaches me about myself, and helps me realize, as Jen described the bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.” It helps me keep my best interests in mind.
We still need people.
John says, “nothing important is ever done alone.” Connecting with others teaches me, inspires me, helps me grow, and sometimes leaves me in awe. Children need parents; infants cannot feed themselves. After a while those children have the opportunity to choose their friends and peers. Who you associate with, even on social media, influences your choices and behavior. In this way, we are all infants, always, absorbing information and using it to help us make decisions. What’s socially acceptable? Kindness toward others goes a long way in shaping life perceptions and habits.
I don’t always understand why the people I love, or for that matter people I don’t even know, make the decisions they do. I have no power to change the decisions that have been made. I also have no responsibility to seeing that their or their family’s life situation improves. The best thing I can do is practice the Small Act of acceptance and give them my love anyway because in reality, our world could use more love and forgiveness, and less hate and judgement.