I can’t take credit for the quote mentioned in the title, as it comes from Steven Cope in his latest book, “The Great Work of Your Life.”
I’ve heard it said, many times, that self-absorption is the root cause of all misery.
I have found, though, that hearing this alone is often not enough to ignite the magic of turning the lens around and holding my focus on others, specifically on relieving the pain of others as well as contributing to their wellbeing.
Like many of us, I imagine, I received a contradictory set of teachings. While my elementary school teacher Mrs. Bregman, Mr. Rogers on tv, and my parents, always reminded me to put others first, the larger cultural context I was growing up in suggested through subtle and not-so-subtle messages via the media – and just the nature of how things are set up – that if I didn’t look out for myself first, I would quickly be trampled.
These are the kinds of contradictions that children are still growing up with – whereby the Human instinct for “what’s right” and the survivalist, divide-and-conquer mentality of corporate consensus reality actually fragment and divide us on the inside.
It’s no wonder, then, that we suffer when we focus on ourselves: the constellation that we call “ourselves” is confused, at odds with itself, often tangled.
While I myself have spent considerable time “working” to “sort myself out,” there are still things that do not feel sorted out, and the longer I go on, the more I realize something that is just not talked about in an age obsessed with independence: that perhaps some of our problems cannot be solved via introspection in isolation – perhaps some of our problems are riddles, conundrums to which the answer is simply, relationship.
There is a beautiful parable that illustrates this:
One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”
God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “You have seen Hell.”
Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.
The man said, “I don’t understand.”
God smiled. It is simple, he said, Love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another. While the greedy only think of themselves… [Author unknown]
I often see the pervasive conditioning of our consensus culture teaching us only to feed ourselves. It’s such a tragedy, because in fact, even if we do manage to find a way to get the food into our mouths, we remain surrounded by suffering, and thus never really satisfied. I feel that part of the message of this parable is that the nourishment is not only in the food, but in the rejoicing at others around us also being satiated, and being able to contribute to that wellbeing with our own actions.
Try a simple “U-turn” exercise when you are feeling trapped in your own misery. In that moment, when you catch yourself, turn the lens around and ask yourself what is one simple thing you can do to relieve the suffering of or bring joy to another in this moment.
The key is to keep it simple. Feeding your cat or watering a plant are simple and quick ways to step out of yourself. Another easy way is to think of someone in the world who might appreciate a phone call and a simple, “how are you?” check in. Imagine their joy on the other end of the line.
The magic here is that, no matter how awful we feel, no matter how much we believe we have messed up and are beyond repair and total failures, that one phone call or cat feeding or plant watering has the power to bring us back into connection, wherein we realize that as long as we are able to put a smile on someone’s face, even for a moment, our lives are worth living.