In this post, perhaps the most potentially powerful and personal of all, I want you to know that your good intentions will only go as far as assuaging your own guilt. If someone you know is suffering severe depression, and you don’t reach out to them, get ready to encounter some deep and lasting guilt. Reaching out can feel extremely dangerous, like crossing over an imaginary line to ask “are you okay?” “Is there something I can do, like just listen?” “I think there’s something troubling you.”
Then wait quietly for your answer.
Practice the waiting if you have to, in front of a mirror. Tell someone else whom you trust what it is that you suspect, and if they have knowledge of the person, they may even participate in this kindness with you. Strength in numbers, the possibility that you may be right, and to perform a mitzvah, a good deed that both you and your subject may long remember are worth the risk. When is the last time that you stuck your neck out, really went out on a limb for someone, risking the embarrassment they might reject you?
I included the link above to the word mitzvah because the very idea captured my attention and stuck with me years after I learned about it. Twenty years ago, I met a very important person in my life, someone who has since often helped me to regain my perspective and shorten a dark depressive episode. Mel was a neighbor who walked into my newly purchased home to introduce herself, and she did it by saying “I almost bought this house, and you stole it out from under me!” The smile on her face and her calming laugh was my introduction to my most cherished neighbor and friend, someone who lived only a block away because I’d in fact been quicker to the draw when placing an offer on my home. Grandma Mel is a blessing. She knows the importance and value of being a good neighbor and I quickly became a member of her extended family. As such I was invited to family gatherings and learned that many of her family members lived all around me. We danced at weddings, we celebrated births and holidays together, and shared a deep love of good food. She was someone who had endured many losses in her life. She and I shared much about our individual lives, serious bouts of depression and lasting darkness, all discussed over her potato latkes, brisket, my Mojitos, or arroz con pollo. There was endless acceptance and love in her heart, and we have remained close friends years after I sold my beloved home. Mel explained the concept of a mitzvah to me. “It’s not supposed to be known that you did it,” she explained, “that would make you a fame seeker.” In her heart were many treasured memories of the people who have touched her life and helped to shape the giving, selfless woman that became my friend so many years ago. She often calls me to ask me, “what’s doing?” as though the mother of six, and grandmother to many didn’t have enough folks to look out for in her full and rich life. She is a shining example for my own approach to helping other people.
Another close friend had called it “putting myself in other people’s circles.” Aunt Bettie was another godsend in my life. She was generous with her time like a mother would be, but she spoke to me like a peer, a friend in whom she trusted and believed to be worthy of her time. Once after a few glasses of wine, she told me “I don’t like everybody; some are just a horse’s ass, and I have to be selective with my time.” I miss Bettie’s warmth and kindnesses almost daily. My best memory of her “circles” comment was getting a few phone calls after some promotion or achievement of mine that had circulated her way, and she’d sing Mister Roger’s “I’m Proud of You” song, all the way to the end. If you got one of those calls it was intended to let you know that you and your achievement meant something to her. The day of her celebration of life ceremony, the venue was packed, and many people stood in the back to share in her family’s loss. Both of Bettie’s daughters took the podium to eulogize their bigger-than-life mother, composed, eloquent, and exhausted from the thought of losing their cherished relationships with Bettie. Kate said “you always knew where you stood with Mom, and she wasn’t shy about telling you.” She continued through the beginning of tears, saying “those of you who knew her also know the I’m Proud of You tradition…” “Come on, let’s all sing it…”. In that room of greater than 200 people, so many joined Kate singing and laughing through their tears.
Why do some of us have the time, the energy, and the chutzpah to risk caring for others? What’s really in it for us?
Until it happens to you
The best idea of why humans extend themselves, why they bother to care about other people is because they receive something in return. In the movie “I Am,” Tom Shadyac set out to learn why we live in such a screwed up world. Why can we live in a modern age, yet still see ancient problems like hunger, ignorance, and apathy still alive and holding strongly? Shadyac instead learned what is right with the world. He proved Einstein’s theory of Quantum Mechanics and entanglement by using yogurt to demonstrate how strong human emotions influenced another living organism, a living culture of yogurt. The energy field within the yogurt detected Shadyac’s mood, and a meter that measured electromagnetic changes detected his feelings when Shadyac thought of his divorce. Further he concluded that humans are genetically wired to care about others, to offer others empathy.
I’m asking you to think about a time in your life when you put yourself out for someone else, and it mattered. Then think about those times in your life when you really felt a need for someone, a friend, or even an acquaintance who could be a sympathetic ear. There is great importance to realize that humans are interconnected, or entangled. There’s a special reward for those who get into the circles of others for good reasons. For Aunt Bettie it meant that she could right a terrible wrong, or tip the scales back toward the middle. She was one in a million, and that crowded room of mourning relatives knew who and what she was. It is my sincere hope to be just a little bit like her always. Her memory will never fade or die as long as I pay forward her empathy and generous spirit.
Good intentions are not enough
Actions matter, more important than books full of promises, or idle words from a well meaning procrastinator. Do it now. Take the risk. Pay forward a kindness that you remember. I hope we’ve all known a Grandma Mel or Aunt Bettie because those are the people who would tell you the truth, even if the truth hurt a little to hear. These kinds of friends can talk you off a ledge. They balance the dark times with a distraction, or a well timed piece of advice. They’ll drive you to the doctor appointment you’ve been dreading without having to be asked. Be one of those people just once and see how you feel afterwards.