Offering Time to Others and Finding Time to Serve Ourselves
"Are you a registered voter?" the young activist soliciting his cause held his clipboard. He made his case and asked if I'd be willing to sign the petition for it after I leave the Ann Arbor District Library. I was there to get work done while waiting for an evening lecture just down the road.
"Why not take care of it now?" I questioned, proud that I like to get things done.
His partner searched for the appropriate clipboard with my county, so the young man with a cause stalled and asked so cheerfully despite standing next to the rain for some time, "So, how's your day going?"
Normally I answer that question with "Great!" and then follow that with a funny remark, an astute observation, or a deflection asking the same of the inquirer. Instead, I took advantage of stepping out of the solitude I'd experienced for the day and the confusion about how solitude seemed to be the only real thing I had accomplished so far.
"Not so great, I think! I seem to be avoiding my work today and I've aimlessly been wandering the city in my car also avoiding the rain! I wanted to be at my computer working instead!"
"Ah! Procrastination!" he said with delight.
Is it? "Isn't that strange," I retorted, slightly offended but maybe shameful that it was true. "I don't usually procrastinate." We chuckled and I did my civil duty.
Inside, I set up my things, thankful computer bags keep their contents dry.
I stopped. I sunk a little. "Oh. I do procrastinate," I thought to myself. He was right. I often put other work first before my own, work that others ask of me. Maybe it's true, that I am so quick to respond to board members' e-mails for the non-profit organization I'm involved in. Maybe it's true, that I concern myself with those matters first and assume mine are always pending and can wait around until I can get to them. And there flashed more recent instances of this sort of behavior, including the signing of the petition. "Oh. This is the pattern that I thought was dead, but here it is, surely alive and cheerfully utilizing my time."
That young man with a cause had more causes than he realized. He caused me to see myself as I actually was: Giving of my time to others, but stingy with the time I give myself, even when the time I want to give myself is also for others in the end.
This is the same behavior that has created past problems and challenges, some of which led up to making decisions with incomplete information and big life changes like divorce. My ignorance of this lingering behavior was why I had been circling around the question and the city of Ann Arbor itself, wondering why I felt so depleted energetically.
By the time I had gotten set up and had a moment to ponder, a local homeless man approached me and begun to barter my donation to him. He started at twenty dollars. We met at two. Minutes later, the neighboring library patron had a visitor who didn't mind that my neighbor was busy at work. The visitor proceeded to explain how and why she ordered herself a fruity cream pie for her June birthday, just around the corner. It was April third. Talk about being ahead of the game. I collected my things and left.
This experience reminds me that I am not done, far from it. There are areas in my life that I've figured out and areas that I think I've figured out but haven't. Then there are areas that I don't even know exist.
And if I wasn't listening closely that day, the message that I received would've been deflected too. Adding to that, what if I prevented that honest interaction altogether and responded to that young activist with the typical "Great! <insert funny deflection astute observation here>!" He wouldn't have pointed out what I was doing so that I could listen in the first place. In being honest with how my day was actually going, I was able to listen to his perspective and learn that while I wasn't procrastinating for his cause, I was procrastinating for mine. How much longer would I have had to wait to recognize my behavior and the way I was harming myself and my priorities?
How can we help others and ourselves without depleting ourselves by taking on too much of their work or making other people feel depleted by handing off our own?
Like the physical aspects in yoga, we must balance. If the front of my physical body is too strong or weak or flexible or inflexible in relation to my back, my back body will suffer, and so then will the front body suffer too. If the back of my body is too strong or weak or flexible or inflexible in relation to my front body, the reverse will happen and the back body itself will also suffer.
Physically, I must find balance in my front body, having equal strength and flexibility within it, to counter the balance in my back body, having equal strength and flexibility within it. And then when the two work side by side, front by back, there is harmony in the whole body.
We can apply this to our social and personal aspirations. I cannot turn my back to you and not help you at all, nor only offer you my front and help you all day while I turn my back to me and do nothing for myself. I must find balance in the time I give and make astute observations about how I serve others, so that I am generous towards me as well and I can give myself just as much or even more time for my work. Why more time for myself? Because what I do is act creatively so that I can help others. I work for the satisfaction of the work I do because it develops my capacities, and in that satisfaction is knowledge that others benefit from my work. And that small oversight was costing my energy for all of us.
Dear Young Man with a Cause,
Wherever you are, thank you for your insight.
And now, I have more questions for myself, like: Why was I upset that the visitor at the library ordered her own pie two months in advance? How did that homeless man have the courage to ask me to raise my donation but he finds himself without shelter? And when does the young activist with a cause, standing so close to the rain that I didn't want to step into, procrastinate? Or does he?
I wonder, how does this experience speak to you? Can you take time to notice something in my story that I'm overlooking and share it with me in the comments? Is there something in your story that you might be seeing more clearly? Below is a great little place to spill it all out, in the comments <3