I believe I am personally called to “Love God” and to “Love Others”. This is a personal conviction I have and one I sincerely hope I have instilled in my children. This calling is lived out in many ways. In loving or helping other people it is very easy to go too far and connect directly with their personal fears. I have learned the hard way that balance needs to be applied to all aspects of life, even service. This natural tendency to go too far is one that can severely damage your psyche and your health. When we help each other we should work to meet needs and listen. We should walk with them as they sort through what is ailing them. We should not take on and “live” another persons challenges.
I will give a fictional example. Disclaimer: All similarities to persons living or dead is coincidental. Oh, and no animals were harmed in the making of this article. Lets say I have a friend who is in an abusive work relationship. His boss is constantly deriding him and picking on him in front of other employees. This is causing my friend to be sick, take up smoking again, and lose sleep. He is distraught and tired all the time. My goal as his friend is to council him and listen to his struggle. I may also connect him with resources and provide him some comfort. We might go see a movie or a concert he would like. We might go together to see a career counselor. What I should not do is get angry and go confront the boss. I should not inject myself emotionally in the situation and try to fix it.
When we take on another person’s fears and struggles to the point of emotional attachment we put ourselves at risk. We are then carrying their emotions in addition to ours. If we do this with numerous people are we not compounding our stress? Are we not putting our health at risk? I believe we are and I have fallen into this trap on more than one occasion. I have made myself sick worrying about a friend and a situation they found themselves in. It has been a hard lesson for me to understand where to draw the line. We are supposed to be caring but we are not supposed to carry the world on our shoulders. The most painful experience I had was laying off employees in an economic downturn. After 9/11 my company revenues dropped 75% for two quarters. It was obvious I had to let some people go. I made myself physically sick worrying about the consequences to their families. I did not give them the credit they deserved. They were all quality people that would work hard and find another job. I was making myself more important than I really was. As a result I made decisions emotionally that put the rest of my company at risk. I took it too far and took on too much of their individual burdens. It has been hard to learn not to interject myself into situations too deeply.
Let’s go back to my example. If I jump in and fix the situation, I have stolen from my friend. I have taken away from them the opportunity to direct his own life. I have also stolen from him the opportunity to learn and grow. To take responsibility for his actions and become a better person. To become a more competent adult. You get the picture. It is the old adage of teaching someone to fish vs. fishing for them. It is hard for us to watch someone struggle and not take action, but sometimes they need to simply go through the process.
Our government fights the same temptation. It is very easy for us as Americans to want the government to step in and fix a problem. Often the problem we want fixed is our own that we do not want to deal with. One of my favorite examples is public education. We stand on the sidelines and throw bombs at the institution. We want vouchers, we want charter schools, we want options. As citizens we have a responsibility to get involved. As parents we are shirking our duty if we do not. Getting the state or federal government to pass a law fixing the problem is not a solution at all. It is a local issue that needs to be worked and solved at the local level.
My point in all of this is we need to understand boundaries, both for ourselves as we get involved in the lives of others, and also for those who get involved in our lives. I find it ironic in such an individualistic nation we constantly want others to solve our problems and we cannot keep out of other peoples business. We need to not only avoid taking on the angst of others but we desperately need to not foist our angst onto those around us.