The Bliss Blog

“The Journey
by Mary Oliver
“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.”

This poignant poem reached out to me this morning, following an intense and deep conversation last night with my friend Tom who has become a dear one in my life and whose soon to be birthed book I am editing.  We had been talking about a common pattern of what I call ‘savior behavior’. With a shared Libra healing and peacemaking sensibility, we have noticed a tendency to draw people into our lives who are facing major life challenges. In my case, whether or not they request it, I offer support, encouragement, ideas, advice and in the past (not as much anymore, blessedly) direct intervention. Sometimes this comes to my own detriment.

The origins of my excessive co-dependent caregiving came by way of my parents who modeled it exquisitely. In addition to raising my sister and me, working, having a life long loving marriage, a social and spiritual life, they each also volunteered in the community. My dad was a firefighter, led a Sunday morning breakfast/prayer gathering at our synagogue and did what was then called Patterning, which would be considered a form of physical therapy with a young girl in our neighborhood. My mom volunteered at synagogue as well, was a homeroom parent, helped out at our swim meets; our kitchen was a kind of Girl Scout cookie central when it was time to vend the decadent treats. In addition, the front window of our home bore the the red and white Helping Hand sign that told neighborhood kids that ours was a safe haven to come to if they were in danger. Holiday tables included friends and family from various circles.

They were reliable and seemingly on call 24/7. They appeared to be able to do it all and were universally loved. I wanted to emulate them. My mother would say that she was a rock and would hold it together in a crisis and then would fall apart afterward. Funny thing is that I never saw her fall apart. I would sometimes say to her, “You know, mom, rocks crumble.”  It wasn’t until many years later (2014) when I experienced the horrific pain of kidney stones when my own began to crumble, that I realized how much like her I truly was.

My personal and professional resume calls me out and has reflected these patterns.  Social worker-therapist-minister-coach-mom-wife-friend-lover-daughter-sister-aunt. Each of these designations carried with them the belief that I needed to be all things to all people.

So, back to the conversation. Tom had commented that it was time to rescue and save myself. I remember my lifeguard training back in the 1970’s that taught me to wait for someone to stop struggling before going in after them, since diving in immediately would likely have them pull me under with them. Then there is the oxygen mask metaphor. While traveling on an airplane, the flight attendant instructs that if needed, put the life giving equipment on yourself first, since you can’t help anyone else if you are passed out from oxygen deprivation. I can’t count the number of times I have attempted to do just that while physically or emotionally crawling and gasping.

I cried when I realized how exhausted I get at times. I cried to all the times when I gave support when I wanted to receive it…hard as it is at times to admit that I actually need it. Who me, human? Who me, vulnerable? Nah. Wonder Woman at your service.

As I am listening to the sweet soothing lullabye sounds of Enya wafting through the air, taking in the sunlight streaming through the windows, the sprinkler offering nourishment to the lawn, the planets soaking up the rays, breathing a sigh of gratitude for my friend, his kindness and generosity and the ways in which he mirrors me.

Saving myself today.

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