The world is full of good people. I know this because I have been blessed, through the years, to have many of them as patients in my medical practice. But some of them are just a bit too good for, well, for their own good. Some examples should bring this into focus.
You have to know a Becky. She is active in her church and youth groups, always there for a meeting or activity. In fact, there is not one night of the week that, while her husband and children are picking up their fast food dinner, they are not bragging about her worthy activities. Or how about Tom, who is a lawyer at a prestigious law firm concerned with civil rights. He works long hours at his job and accomplishes much good. His wife shows his picture in the newspaper to the children while they are eating dinner without him. Or then there's Eleanor. Her mother has Alzheimer's disease, and is slowly losing her mind. Endless hours are spent caring for her, or just sitting and reading to her, while her children watch television. And finally, take a look at Shirley, who is so caught up in her life and activities that she has no room for others. Productive and active, her outside self is a facade attracting followers.
In our society, such people are often venerated and emulated, even though they should not be. Each of them is operating in an unbalanced mode, favoring one side of their reality for another. Although this may seem noble in some cases, and selfish in others, it is foolish in all. Foolish because we as individuals, and as members of society, cannot function in such a manner. Balance in our lives is such a fundamental concept that various cultures throughout time have stressed its need. Call it Ying and Yang if you must, but balance you must have.
There is a little saying I like to quote to patients, I always start it out, and they always finish it, and they always finish it the same way. I begin by saying "Do unto others..." and the patient always finishes by saying "as you would have others do unto you." That's right, I tell them, and then I ask a very simple question, but a very profound question. "What is the most important word in that saying?" "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Predictably, I get almost every word of this proverb quoted back to me, except the right answer. The most important word of this saying is the tiny conjunction "as." Why? Because it is important to realize that this passage, taken from the Bible, says that one should do unto others as you would have them do unto you; not better nor worse than you would have them do unto you. But as, which is to say the same as you would have them do unto you. That has a profound impact on many of our daily activities. That word tells us the need for that sense of balance so often lacking, and lacking indeed in the examples cited above.
So look at Becky, the tireless organization worker. All that energy going out of the home can lead to dispossessed, unmothered children. Children who raise themselves, deriving their values from their own observations rather than those their mother holds dear. Organizations, they feel, are groups that separate a parent from a child, and are to be despised. One generation after Becky finished building, her children will likely tear it down.
And don't you think that Tom's wife and children will begin to resent the clients who consume so much of his time. One of the reasons divorce is so prevalent in the professional segment of society is the often quiet neglect the family of the crusader must bear. How long can a neglected family stay a family?
Eleanor's mother absolutely requires attention, but must Eleanor give it personally? Her time spent away from her children is time that can never be recovered, and the grandparent who should be remembered in a loving way is instead remembered for the time usurped from the rest of the family. If finances are such that there is no other way to render such care than personally, why not involve other members of the family, young and older, so that both the responsibility and the credit may be shared?
And yes, even Shirley needs to loosen up a bit. Her job and activities are important, but there are other things besides self. No doubt, her talents would be useful in her church or civic organization. Perhaps she could learn new joys from helping others, as opposed to only herself.
We all know people such as these examples, individuals who work for a charitable, religious, or civic organization, devoting endless hours for the organization, doing everything possible for the organization, while neglecting his or her own family. Conversely, there are those people who would do nothing for anybody except themselves. Both of these extreme behaviors are in conflict with this simple and widely accepted saying.
To do unto others at the exclusion of yourself or those you love is wrong, just as the converse is wrong.
We recognize selfishness as a problem, we rarely recognize selflessness as a problem, but it can be just as bad as selfishness.
So when it comes to starting that diet or exercise program, what I often hear from patients is "I don't have time." So I ask them, "If a friend of yours called you and said, ‘I need you to come over today, for a half-hour, to help me. I am having a severe problem with my spouse or children.' Would you go?" "Of course," they say, "I would go in a heartbeat." Fine, they are not going to call you, but you need that time to devote to yourself. So schedule that half-hour, that you would have gladly given to someone else, for yourself. Schedule that half-hour for your exercise program, or for another self-development program or technique. You are just as important as your neighbor. You should treat yourself just as you would have your neighbor treat you.
This material and entire blog copyright © 2009 by Marc I. Leavey, M.D.
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