Embracing Identities: Your Own, and Everyone Else’s
Just about everyone has heard of the Biblical principle to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whether or not you’re someone who subscribes to what’s taught in the Bible, it’s a principle that we can all see the value in—especially in a world that seems to highlight division more than ever. And while I do believe that this principle is one that’s worthwhile for everyone to apply, I also believe that a lot of folks struggle to find balance in applying it. As a matter of fact, I think there are two distinct ways that people can struggle to find balance with this: extending for other people too much, and feeling that one is not helping other people enough. I believe that maintaining a healthy sense of identity involves respecting and supporting those around us, as well as respecting and supporting our own selves. With this in mind, I’d like to look at how both extremes of not knowing how best to “love our neighbor” can create problems, and how to find a better balance in each scenario.
I think we all know someone who tends to bite off more than they can chew when it comes to helping other people. (I would venture to say that more than a few of you reading this feel this way about yourself!) I tend to think that this is an especially prominent issue in the Midwest—and a lot of this can come back to not feeling able to say “no” when we need to. If I say to you that sometimes the best thing we can do for other people is to be intentional about taking time for ourselves, you might wonder how exactly that math works out. But there’s an illustration I like to walk through with clients that can be helpful here: in a vacuum, we can always justify to ourselves doing an individual “good thing” for someone else. ‘Of course I want to help a person, why would I turn that down?’ And when these opportunities come up, if we’re inclined to put others before ourselves, then we’re going to keep accepting more and more of these responsibilities. And let us say for the sake of argument that this gets to a point where you spend every spare hour of your week doing things for other people, and zero of those hours doing things to recharge yourself. This is something that people can—and do—sustain for quite a while, and it speaks to how much energy we can find in ourselves when we’re in a position of needing to do so. But this system always breaks down eventually: a person who is not taking time for themselves will eventually run out of gas in some way or another, and be forced to take a break from fixing things for everyone else. And when this happens, suddenly we’re not doing very much at all for other people: we abruptly go from doing everything to doing nothing. On the other hand, if we spend some of our spare time helping other people, and some of our spare time replenishing ourselves, this crash never happens in the first place. This means that the things we do for other people never get interrupted by this burnout: we find that the way to do the most good for other people is not necessarily to do the most good for other people.
A big part of this equation is understanding what we’re capable of, as well as what duties we’re responsible for and what duties are the responsibility of someone else. The question I encourage everyone to ask when thinking about the roles you serve in another person’s life is this: am I supporting this person, or am I rescuing them? And if we’re an adult talking about another adult, we’re going to find that it puts us in a difficult spot if lots of our relationships are built around rescuing rather than supporting. For one, rescuing someone puts it in their head (as well as our own) that we’re responsible for whether they succeed or fail, and it also takes the opportunity to learn and grow out of their hands. For parents, this can be an especially difficult challenge during a child’s transition into adolescence and adulthood. This transition requires a parent to let go of the way things have been with their child, so that their child can make their own way in the world. A simple question that we can ask when it comes to letting go of responsibilities is this: “is this thing that I’m doing actually my job to do?” We can always choose to go above and beyond for the people in our lives, but this question is a good way to define what is fair to expect of ourselves.
On the other side of things, there’s the person who wants to love their neighbor but isn’t quite sure how to do so. It can help to start by asking the question, “well, who is my neighbor?” And the answer to this question doesn’t have to be the person whose home address is a few digits off from yours. There’s something about humans that drives us to be charitable and to enjoy the act of being charitable. And beyond even just knowing that we’ve had an opportunity to do something for someone else, I believe that the human desire for connectedness and community can give us a powerful boost when we take time to link up with other people so we can serve. So, what do you do if you want to help the world more, but aren’t sure where to start? I would propose that a good starting point is looking at your own values. What’s important to you? And as you look to the future, what do you want to be important to you? If, for example, you’re someone who loves being with animals and wants to spend extra time doing something that recharges you, I don’t think I have to call in Sherlock Holmes to confirm that something like volunteering at a shelter might be a good fit for you. But that question of what you want to be important to you can also help to narrow down the things that you might want to explore. The question of “what do I want my purpose to be” might be better explored with a mentor or counselor, and the answer to it can change over time, but you won’t find the answer unless you ask questions that push you to learn more about yourself.
Anytime we try something new, we learn something about ourselves: it’s nice to find something new that you enjoy, but it’s also helpful to realize that something isn’t for you as well! And perhaps over time you’ll talk yourself into giving something you didn’t enjoy another try (looking at you, rollercoasters), but trying something and not enjoying it gives you an extra bit of certainty about who you are. For all of the things that we can control about how we interact with the world and the problems we face, we all have core identities that guide us towards different interests and values. And if I could put it in this way, I would say that the more we see ourselves do, the more we understand who we are. Consequently, when it comes to other people, it can be best both for other people and for ourselves to let other people try things on their own. As the cliché goes, you learn more from mistakes than you do from successes, and why should that not be true for other people as well? I began above with the thought of loving your neighbor, and love does entail going out of our way on behalf of others—I would argue that’s the entire foundation of love. But love that takes control out of another person’s hands can be counterproductive for the giver and the receiver, and can get in the way of both parties coming to learn about who they are.