In Relationships, Knowing What’s Ours To Do.
Not long ago, I received a call from a young couple in crisis saying the two of them were stranded on the side of the road in her vehicle. She is 36, he is 31 and they are dating.
She began, “I have a really big favor to ask of you. We’re out of gas and I was wondering if you could bring us some — enough to get to the nearest station?”
They weren’t far from me and I assured her I could easily do that.
She continued, “The other thing is that our connection with each other is out of gas, too. We’re in trouble. Instead of waiting until our next appointment, is there any way you could see us this afternoon?”
It was a Friday afternoon and I had time. I took fuel to them, and a short while later, they arrived at my home, completely undone and on the verge of breaking up.
That’s where we started. By the end of the session, the basics were repaired enough for sunshine to find its way from behind the clouds. The session was a long one, and brought to the surface a point I’ve probably made in this blog before and (no doubt) will make again.
Make sure you know how to fill your tank.
For things to work between you and anyone — your child, friend or lover — keeping your tank on empty, while harboring the secret expectation that someone or something besides you should do the filling is a recipe for resentment.
To be happy in life, and to feel satisfied, it is not the responsibility of others to act in ways that make us feel good, or to fill our tanks enough for us to feel level and steady during the day. No one (except us) can fill our tank to “I’m OK.” They might be able to top off our tank, but it’s not their job to fill it from empty to half or three-fourths, say. That part is ours to do. Others can’t fill our empty tank, our black hole.
A mother cannot say “you’re beautiful” enough times to cause her daughter to feel beautiful. But if the daughter experiences her own beauty through personal aha’s, mom’s positive words will go straight to the daughter’s heart, because there is room for them, and a context for receiving them. The mother’s words add to the daughter’s “already there” self-love.
(And yes, I know the conversation is larger, that the mother could offer information or perspectives to help the daughter, yes absolutely. It’s not that the mother should be silent. But hang with me here on the central point about finding one’s personal strength and freedom.)
Others may very well delight us, please us. But it’s not their job. They might humor us, uplift us, encourage us. And if they do, it’s a contribution and it feels wonderful. But it’s not their task, nor a necessary role. They don’t owe it to us to transplant a rosier outlook into our negative space. Even when they try, it doesn’t grow.
Because this is a potentially tricky idea, one that can easily be misinterpreted, misused, misappropriated — let me speak about where this comes from in me.
I learned from three failed marriages — almost four (things with my fourth husband, Eric, went the way of the others, until I woke up). I learned from a sister with mental problems. I learned by being the black sheep of the family, the odd one out. I learned by watching the news.
I was an apprentice of the idea of filling my own tank when Eric (my husband) was alive. I grasped even more about this when he died 2-1/2 years ago. Even though I knew fully by then that I was in charge of how I feel, his death changed me. It required me to attend to an ever-deepening level of self-sufficiency.
It’s not the job of my partner (or anyone) to pave my streets with gold.
Many changes saved my marriage with Eric, but strong among them was my realization that it wasn’t Eric’s assignment to remove challenges in our partnership. It wasn’t his job to change so that I could avoid facing myself, or even to offer words to soften or smooth things. I needed to learn that for myself. Eric gave me many challenges, and I grew from each of them.
One challenge for me was to witness someone I loved losing vitality, strength and energy. Daily, I experienced the importance of feeling my good health (keep my tank full enough) even when Eric didn’t feel well, which was often, and was spread over five years. Five years is a long time to practice that tank filling idea, which was difficult for me, especially at first.
When he tipped his hat goodbye in March of 2017, I started down the long and winding road of grief. Death of a partner is different from the death of a friend, parent, child, or pet. It’s not easier or harder, if there is such a thing in the world of death, but it’s different. I learned that no matter how deeply friends cared about me, they could not help me reconcile the black hole I felt from no longer having Eric. It was up to me in the quiet of the morning, every single morning, morning after morning, to make peace with his death.
When Eric was alive, I realized (gradually) that it wasn’t his job to “get me to happy.” Or “keep me happy.” (Even though it was his inclination, and even though he tried.) Rather, building a foundation of happy was my work, so that whatever he offered landed on that.
Being with him day-to-day provided all sorts of ways for me to know my truth, to feel it, and express it. If he happened to support my truth, all the better. That was a sweet thing and often caused the joy with us to uplevel, even to increase exponentially and hover there (which can happen only if one’s tank is near full).
What I practiced daily around Eric starting about five years into our relationship (around 2005) was the idea that he was not wrong, that he was “just right.” That he didn’t need fixing. That he had worthy and valid reasons for actions or thoughts I disagreed with, or took offense to, and that I could find the those good reasons if I looked, if I asked open questions, if I was curious.
I observed that he (and others) do and say, and they don’t do and don’t say, and my practice was to “be in love.” Meaning that my practice was to stand in love, express love, find love, feel love no matter what was going on around me or between the two of us. I practiced being loving to myself and to him (and others) regardless of circumstances.
Given where I was coming from when I began, that was a tall order for me. But we start where we start. That’s what we can do. And it’s enough. In fact, it’s just right.
During my practice, if I did not feel loving in the face of something, I didn’t fake it. I didn’t pretend. Or act nice. If I was sad, I was sad and I cried. If I felt devastated or down for the count, I let myself go there, consciously. Eyes and heart wide open. Noticing. Being an observer. Standing back a pace or two, to see what was happening.
If I reacted with anger, I reacted. But the difference for me was that I noticed I reacted. I paid attention. “Oh, look at me. I’m angry.” I also gave myself time to notice what was between me and love. I inquired within.
That was my practice. And still is. For me, it is the most valuable thing I do every day.