What Do I Need, part 1

What do I need? It’s not a bad question to ask ourselves. What are my needs? Are they being met? Good questions, from time to time. It's good to check in with ourselves and tend to our own well-being.

And then there’s this other question: What do others need? What do other people need – people of other cultures and races? What do people of other gender – or transgender or no gender -- need? What will our grandchildren’s grandchildren need? What do other species need – other mammals, other warm-blooded beings, other vertebrates, other animals, other living beings? What do ecosystems need? What does the planet need?

In some cases, the answer might be leave them alone and they’ll take care of their own needs. Still, there is something we owe to each other. “What We Owe to Each Other” is the title of a 1998 book by philosopher Tim Scanlon. The book was inspiration for, and mentioned by name in, the TV series, “The Good Place.”

So, here are these two questions: What do I need? What do I owe myself? And what do others need? What do I owe to others?

One very common and perhaps intuitive approach to these questions is to say: we try to balance them. They pull in opposite directions, there’s a tension between what I owe myself and what I owe others, and the best a person can do is try to find the right balance between competing pulls, giving the appropriate amount of attention and concern to each side. I don’t think the balance approach is the most helpful here – the truest to what your own and others’ needs actually call for.

For some of life’s questions, this balance approach is right on – but not this one. For instance, when it comes to work vs. family-leisure-recreation, those competing pulls do require finding a right balance. Finding that balance may not always be easy, but trying to find it is the right approach there.

But the question of what I owe myself and what I owe others calls for a different approach. On this Mother’s Day, let us turn to the wisdom of mothering. There is some balancing involved – particularly that work-family balance. But the general calling of mothering isn’t about balancing, but a combination of serving the collective need and tending to the individual need that’s greatest at that moment. ("A mother is only as happy as her least happy child," according to the saying.)

There’s the paradoxical reality that on the one hand, others must be respected as distinct beings with their own preferences and life plans that might not even make sense to you, while on the other hand, there are no others – all of reality is you. Walt Whitman expressed this awareness in “Song of Myself.” He identifies with every being and every object, for he understands that a self is all selves. He recognizes the suffering of others as his very own:
“Embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering,
See myself in prison shaped like another man,
And feel the dull unintermitted pain.
For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch,
It is I let out in the morning and barr’d at night.
Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side,
(I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.)
Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried and sentenced.
Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the last gasp,
My face is ash-color’d, my sinews gnarl, away from me people retreat.
Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them,
I project my hat, sit shame-faced, and beg.”
What do I owe myself? What do I owe others? The two questions are really one question, and the answer is compassion – compassion for all that is, including that skin-bag walking around answering to the name printed on your ID card. The general answer to “What do I need?” is compassion. On this Mother’s Day, we look to the quintessence of what mothering is: compassion.

Compassion is an active wish that a being not suffer, and a feeling of sympathetic concern. If a mother’s child falls and hurts himself, she wants him to be out of pain. If you hear that a friend is in the hospital, or out of work, or going through a divorce, you feel for her and hope that everything will be all right. Compassion is our nature: it's an important part of the neural and psychological systems we evolved to nurture children, bond with mates, and hold together "the village it takes to raise a child."

Let’s look at self-compassion – because one thing we all need is self-compassion – self-mothering. Self-compassion is not self-pity. It’s simply recognizing, "this is tough, this hurts," and bringing the same warmhearted wish for suffering to lessen or end that you would bring to any dear friend grappling with the same pain, upset, or challenge as you.

Take a moment to acknowledge your difficulties: your challenges and suffering. Bring to mind the feeling of being with someone you know cares about you: Your mother – or, if that won’t work for you, another family member, or a dear friend, or a spirit, or God, or a pet. Let yourself feel that you matter to this being, who wants you to feel good and do well in life. Bring to mind your difficulties, and imagine that this being who cares about you is feeling and expressing compassion for you. Imagine zir facial expression, gestures, stance, and attitude toward you. Let yourself receive this compassion, taking in its warmth, concern, and goodwill. Open to feeling more understood and nurtured, more peaceful and settled.

Imagine someone you naturally feel compassion for: perhaps a child, or a family member. Imagine how you would feel toward that person if he or she were dealing with whatever is hard for you. Let feelings of compassion fill your mind and body. Extend them toward that person, perhaps visualized as a kind of light radiating from your heart. Notice what it's like to be compassionate. Then, extend the same sense of compassion toward yourself.

Say to yourself: “May this pain pass. May things improve for me. May I feel less upset over time.”

You may recognize that this is prayer – understanding that the point of prayer is not to get some super-being to grant your wish, but rather it is the orientation you give yourself by merely expressing the wish. Have warmth for yourself. Acknowledge your difficulties and pain. Feel compassion sinking in to you, becoming a part of you, soothing and strengthening you.

People have studied self-compassion, and the studies find that having compassion for yourself reduces self-criticism, reduces stress hormones, facilitates resilience, and helps heal the deficits of care that go back to childhood.

When you ask yourself, “What do I need?” and you answer, compassion for all beings including myself, the question then becomes what does compassion look like right now, right here? We’ve looked at the “including myself” part. We’ll look at the “all beings” part in Part 2.

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