Burn, baby, burn

Fire flames isolated on white background

Every day (mostly), I write a quote on the dry erase board that hangs on the door to my office. Some are inspirational, some are motivational, some are snarky, and some are just downright funny. Each one of them speaks to me in its own way, and some of them stick with me longer than others. I’m still chewing on Tuesday’s maxim.

Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.

I was feeling a little snarky when I found that one, and it seemed to fit my mood pretty well. I didn’t give it much thought as I scribbled it onto my board, but two days later, I can’t stop thinking about it. Each time I turn it over in my head, I think of it differently.

I had someone in particular in mind when I selected that quote, and my initial reaction was, Darned straight. That person doesn’t deserve my consternation. (Okay, my actual thoughts were a little more colorful, but you get the point.) Once the steam started dissipating, the mental revolutions commenced.

First revolution: Don’t get all jacked up for someone else’s cause. Yeah, I’ll buy that. I’ve got to buy in all on my own or it doesn’t really matter. I don’t want to be a lemming.*

Second revolution: Don’t ruin yourself trying to fix someone else’s problems. Sounds good to me. It’s not that I don’t care, but I’ll be no good to anyone if I break myself in the process.

Third revolution: Don’t sacrifice yourself to help others. Hmm. A little self denial for someone else’s benefit never hurt anyone. In fact, I would argue that in many cases, it builds character–and it’s the right thing to do.

Well, crap.

I wanted to nurse my irritation, not untangle it. I wanted to wallow in the darkness, not see myself illuminated in the mud. Sure, it doesn’t make sense in the long run to wind up so depleted that I can’t help anyone, but how often does that really happen? Putting my needs (read: wants) aside to help someone else is a noble endeavor. It’s the difference between being focused on the bigger picture and being self-centered.

Here’s the caveat, though.

Every fire needs fuel. If you don’t feed it, eventually it will burn out.

So those times when I feel snarky and just, well, done? Those are signals that I need to pull back, take care of myself, and re-energize. Refuel. Find my zen. Untangle the knots. Maybe even dump the lost causes. Whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t mean quitting–it means taking a break to get healthy and strong so I can get back at it. Someone once told me, The wounded can’t carry the stretcher. It doesn’t mean we don’t need stretcher-bearers; rather, we need stretcher-bearers who won’t drop the darned thing.

And that leads me to the fourth revolution:  It’s not about NOT setting yourself on fire. It’s about not letting fire consume you. Do good. Take care of yourself. Do more good.

Don’t burn out; burn bright.

*Side note on lemmings: be careful when you follow the masses. Sometimes the ‘m’ is silent.

Mother-Teresa-Quotes-Do-Your-Best-Anyway-1

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No words

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In the last weeks, we’ve seen bombs. We’ve seen explosions. We’ve seen natural disasters. We’re overwhelmed. Some say there are no words.

But there are, and we have to find them.

Those of us looking from the outside in, feeling the shock and pain of people we don’t even know, owe it to those wracked by the damage. We have to find words that will arrange shelter and organize supplies and rebuild lives. Words like How can I help? What do you need? I’m coming with food. You can stay at my place. I’m coming to clean and rebuild. Here’s my donation. 

We have to offer words of comfort. I’m sorry. I’m praying for you. Let me hold you for a minute. I care.

More importantly, we have to back up those words with meaning and with action.

In times of crisis, words matter more than ever. Whether on the news or in someone’s heart, on a large scale or an individual basis, we can all reach out and make a difference. If you think there are no words, dig deeper.

Do what you can

booksI just read a remarkable book. Packed to its binding with a broad range of insights, one in particular has my attention right now. The book, a memoir of a son’s relationship with his mother and an homage to the books they shared, revives my long-standing question of whether I am really doing enough to make the world around me a better place. The son had the same question for his mother:

“I just feel guilty that I’m not doing more in the world,” I said. “I mean, it’s so easy to read Suite Francaise and think, ‘Why didn’t people in America know more and do more?’ But here I am, and there are things going on all over–child soldiers and genocide and human trafficking–and I’m hardly doing anything.”–Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about people in a faraway country or people at my local soup kitchen, there’s work to be done. The topic could be education, literacy, health, crime, safety, community development, or general quality of life. The questions are the same: What am I doing to make the world a better place? Am I doing enough?

Many days I don’t feel as if I have a moment to spare. I have a demanding full-time job and kids, for crying out loud. We’ve got practices and games and performances and check-ups and middle-school social activities and info sessions and…whew. Plus I’m training for a half marathon, I volunteer on some local committees and boards, I do some freelance writing, and I have a pipe dream of carving out some kind of social life. What else am I supposed to do?

And yet, something deep inside me tells me that we all should be working to make the world a better place. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale, but some way, somehow, we should touch a life in a positive way. A changing way.

Oh, the guilt.

I loved the answer Will’s mother gave him, not only because it assuaged my guilt a bit, but also because I believe she’s right:

Of course you could do more–you can always do more, and you should do more–but still, the important thing is to do what you can, whenever you can. You just do your best, and that’s all you can do. Too many people use the excuse that they don’t think they can do enough, so they decide they don’t have to do anything–even if it’s just to sign something, or send a small contribution, or invite a newly settled refugee family over for Thanksgiving. –Mary Anne Schwalbe in The End of Your Life Book Club

She later added:

It’s fine to give yourself treats, if you can afford it, but no one needs to eat like that every night. It should be special. [Here’s my favorite part.] If you are fortunate enough to have these questions, it means that you have an extra responsibility to make sure you’re doing something. … People should use their talents.

I understand the feeling of being overwhelmed. There’s so much to do everywhere; will my little contribution of time, talent, or treasure really make a difference? I have to believe that it all adds up. I may not be able to do a lot, but I still have to do what I can. I’m holding on to that.

P.S. If you’re interested in the book, I highly recommend it–especially if you have a passion for books themselves. It’s called The End of Your Life Book Club, written by Will Schwalbe. Loved it.

‘Tis the season

2012 treeRemember when I wrote that I need to learn from my own insights? Well, I’ve been thinking about my Thanksgiving post in particular since the words flew from my fingers. Now that we’re well into the Christmas season, I’ve really gotten stuck on the ability to share my fortune with others from my what-I’m-thankful-for list.

I started considering what I really do to share my fortune. Without burdening you with the gory details of my hyperanalytical thought process, I concluded that I should be doing more. I have a lot. I give my kids a lot. I’ve got room to give others a lot more.

So in this season of giving, I made a new rule for myself. My local grocery store keeps a bin of brown paper bags near the front of the store. They’re all filled with various grocery items and stapled shut, each carrying a price tag of $3, $5, or $10. Rather than functioning as grocery grab bags, they instead are filled with items needed by the local food bank. When a shopper buys one, it is placed in another bin to be delivered to the food bank. My new rule? Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I buy one every time I visit the grocery store, even if I’m just picking up a gallon of milk.

I don’t know how many I’ve bought, and I don’t care. That’s not the point. I recently wrote some copy for a company Christmas card that included the line, With prosperity comes responsibility. Or, in the true Christmas spirit, For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.

I have been given much. ‘Tis the season.