Key 4: Look out for others’ best interests, not only your own.
While I was reared by the Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—I did not think of it until recently as the foundation of a philosophy of enlightened self-interes, the idea that we benefit when we find ways to provide a benefit for others.
Since I have blogged frequently on the importance of unselfishness and of putting others first, today I want to focus on the flip side of unselfishness, enlightened self-interest. It’s a phrase that creeps into my writing fairly often. I wrote my book RECLAIMING JOY backwards, conducting research only when I began my third draft. One of the first books I read was Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, for it was Tocqueville, in his 1831 tour of America, who first noticed and described this remarkable American virtue of enlightened self-interest. It applies to widows as well as to capitalists.
We all know the takers and the manipulators, those who stomped on our fingers as they pushed past us in their climb up the ladder of popularity, success, status. We recall those who only extended kindness to those who could help them in their climb, the ones who were so syrupy sweet to those they cultivated but who abused and misused those who waited on them in service and retail relationships. We recognize the entitled ones, those who assumed that their wishes and needs were more important than anyone else’s, who assumed that others were obligated to take care of them. For the most part, we don’t choose to be around them. Many of them will end up as lonely, embittered old ladies.
Widowhood is a jolt. We are no longer the most important person in anyone else’s life. I do not want to be that self-centered, demanding, manipulative woman whom others—especially family—avoid. I know that my children’s responsibilities to their spouses and children take precedence over their responsibility to me.
My mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about the same time my dad was diagnosed with always-fatal multiple myeloma. I was 38; our children, 12 and 9. I asked my pastor, “What is my responsibility to my mother?”
His wise answer served as my Baptist absolution. Any time I began to feel torn or guilty, I replayed his words in my mind. Over the years I shared it again and again with friends coping with aging parents. After Lev died, I realized that my minister’s words applied to my children and me. He said:
You can’t make your mother happy. What would make her happy is to have your dad alive and to have her health, and you can’t give her that. You are responsible for seeing that her needs are met, but your first responsibility is to your husband, then to your children. That is biblical. Aging parents are like children. What they want and what they need are often two different things. You need to meet her needs but not her unreasonable desires.
When I was a child, I was taught in Sunday School that JOY is an acronym for Jesus, Others, You. In other words, to have joy, you need to place God first, then others and lastly yourself. That is far too simplistic. We cannot ignore our own physical, spiritual, emotional, social and financial needs; but somehow, we must find a healthy balance. If we want a strong relationship with our children, we must respect their other responsibilities and commitments. They have needs and heartfelt desires, too. How can we help?
During the years of Lev’s declining health and especially after his death, I seemed to have used up all my emotional resources. My cup was empty. I had nothing more to give. However, focusing on my emptiness stripped away all vestiges of contentment and joy. When I took my eyes off myself to reach out to others, I lifted my spirits and nourished my soul.
Thanksgiving and Christmas offer us myriad opportunities to forget about ourselves as we “do unto others,” whether it is shopping and cooking for family and friends, serving a meal to the homeless or buying gifts to a child who would otherwise be without. The possibilities are endless. For it is in giving that we receive.
Photo by Jocelyn Maloney for StockSnap.io.