My grandmother made her life manageable by adjusting her attitude toward others. The small courtesies, unspoken comments, the gentle smile over the bitten tongue, were all her daily practices.
She died this past April after living 100 and one half years – and by all testaments, including her own, it was a wonderfully fulfilling life that she enjoyed till the end with her wits about her, good humor and social grace. She told her share of stories over the years, and also imparted many wise words of advice. (“Never go to bed angry” is my personal favorite and challenge.) Near the end of her life though, her recall began to fade about specifics, but she was buoyed by her ability to keep her good humor and agreeability and went about her days with unwavering determination that she’d live to see another.
I cannot remember a time that she appeared to be in a struggle with her feelings in front of me. Of course, she would get “cross” at us grandchildren and speak firmly or harshly even to get things back to order, but she kept her own emotions tightly within like the center of an unopened flower.
In support of her outward countenance, my grandmother kept a folder of inspiring words, poems and sayings that helped her through her days, and I imagine her turning to one now and then for levity and fortitude. The one that she kept tucked into the frame of her mirror on her dressing table begins with this:
“Just for today I will be happy. This assumes what Abraham Lincoln said is true: ‘Most folks are about as happy as they make their mind up to be.’ Happiness comes from within; it is not a matter of externals. Just for today I will try to adjust myself to what is; not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my family, my business, and my luck as they come and fit myself to them.”
My grandmother’s life encompassed a century of shifts in how we relate to one another. For most of it, to openly share one’s painful truths – the rejections, frustrations, unhappinesses, the failures, faults and disappointments, or even the abuses we may have suffered – was generally frowned on. Intimate or forthright talk of such matters was and still is often a reason for rejection among family or friends, and can be a lonely path to travel on.
Yet the decades of stoicism that guided my grandmother and many generations eventually combusted among the younger generations as individualism grabbed hold of the microphone and spotlight and declared itself king or queen of the stage. And, perhaps more than any other trend in contemporary culture’s understanding of the individual was the identification and elevation of the victim role. If the 1970s were the Me Decade, and the 1980s was the Decade of Greed, the 1990s was the Decade of the Victim.
Many of us assumed the victim role readily, finding camaraderie among our fellow hurting souls who finally were able to feel vindicated, righteous even, in our declarations of pain:
“My father abused me. He hit me. Berated me. Made me cower in fear. … My mother neglected me, shunned me, she drank too much, slobbered over me. … My husband left me. She is a cheat, that’s why I am the way I am. My brother and sister robbed me, they’re junkies, pushed me out a moving car. Beat me. Held me down. … Me. Me. Me. Me. Pay attention to me.“
The Decade of the Victim was just a continuation of the Decade of Me. And I admit, I joined in the chorus. Me. Me. Me. Me.
“Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, speak diplomatically, act courteously, be liberal with praise, criticize not at all, nor find fault with anything, and not try to regulate or improve anyone. Just for today I will try to live through this day only, not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do things for twelve hours that would appall me if I had to keep them up for a lifetime.”
Now that we are in the “aughts” and the boom of the self help trend and spiritual awakening movement has infiltrated most facets of life, the Decades of Me may finally be shifting for a portion of the masses. We are slowly learning to be soul satisfied from validating and honoring our own strengths within. By taking the time to reflect, to contemplate our own navels when confronted with a situation rather than blaming someone else for our personal situations or our own behaviors in that situation, we can calmly understand what we might have done wrong, what might have hurt us in others actions, and instead of reacting, we can make a better choice of how to be in the world among others.
This way of thinking is not a return to the stoic, unspeakable state of my grandmother, but a more healthy balance of recognizing that enlightenment, peace, agreeability and love even, are available to everyone – as long as we turn the mirror back on ourselves to learn our lessons about how to be kind to ourselves and each other. It often means adjusting ourselves to the situation around us without contempt, without blame, and realizing that in the choices of how we handle ourselves, we have options. We can go into the victim and say Why me? Why is this happening to me again? It’s your fault! You made me this way! Or, we can warm ourselves with compassion to the differences or difficulties of others or situations we might find ourselves in and adjust, knowing that we consciously made the choice, and that in doing so we create an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and others.
In recent weeks, my husband has been providing respite care for my father-in-law in our home. While he can ID a celebrity from decades ago in a black in white photo, he no longer remembers important things and details, sometimes even moment to moment. While still Dad, he is now someone else, someone who is in need of support in ways a child – no matter how prepared in the mind – never fully expects a parent to be. The roles are reversed, and for now, moment to moment, we are, my husband is, adjusting, working on being agreeable, cultivating compassion, and learning about himself, how to be in the world with a new and different relationship with the person who is his father.
The wisdom of elders is imparted to us throughout our lives in many ways: through their stories, their outright lessons, through their comforting in hard times and even through their punishments. Yet the lessons that are imparted when an elder is unable to tell their stories anymore, when they are in need of care themselves and may not even know to ask for it, are as foundational as the earth itself. Towering above them all is a lesson, an ethic so ancient it spans all cultural contexts and eons of time. It’s what many in the U.S. call the “Golden Rule” – something often not practiced in our still-learning-to be mindful, coming out of “Me” culture. It can better be understood as the ethics of reciprocity, and it is as ancient a wisdom and transcendent as the mysteries as life itself. It’s found throughout human history, cultures and religions, as an edict, guide, and parable for how to be a good person in community, how to be good to self.
“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” – Confucius
“Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him.” – Pittacus (c. 640–568 BCE)
“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Luke 6:31
There are many other examples of this universal guide, in all religions and cultures, from Wiccan, to Buddhism, to Muslim to NeoPagan.
At our hearts, we all share the ability to find ourselves in the other, and act from a place of goodness. When a loved one cannot do for themselves, the answer to being able to rise to that occasion is balance within. It’s not stoicism and avoiding the deep emotions of grief, frustration, anger or despair. And it’s not leaping into to heights of catastrophe, blame and victim. It’s finding the bridge in the middle, where the flares of those extremes fade away alongside, when looking into the face of the one you must care for, your elder, a spouse, a stranger, you see a mirror back to yourself, and the wisdom to care as if for – and indeed truly for – yourself.