“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” ~ E.B. White
Most mornings as I wake up, a large part of my heart longs to save the world, to heal hurts, to fix people where they are broken.
Maybe I'm too sensitive. I think I was absent the day they taught how to do that whole “close your heart off” thing because I don’t seem to be able to do it.
When I was a child, I hated being in crowded places; being near so many people dealing with difficult emotions overwhelmed me. I was much happier curled up with a book.
As I got older, I found ways to deal with it, to deal with all of the emotions bouncing around from people, to deal with all of the anger, the sadness, the pain in the world. I drank. Experimented with drugs. And even used simpler things to push it away, to distance myself, to not feel all of the world’s pain. I needed to stop seeing it because the fact that I couldn't fix it hurt so much.
As I grew up, I sought out careers instinctively that afforded me the opportunity to help others. I taught. Volunteered in an AIDS hospice. Worked with Habitat for Humanity, Oxfam, Foodshare. Used my spare time from my jobs that paid the bills to do work that made a difference. Yet, it never seemed like enough; that drive to fix things was still there like a permanent ache in my chest.
When my vocation shifted toward health and healing and I entered massage school, I realized something striking and nearly quit. As I would touch people, I’d feel where they were hurting and it took my breath away. I could feel their brokenness stuck in their elbows that wanted to hug tightly to their sides. I could feel the shame in the small of their backs. I could feel the profound sadness stuck in their shoulders, tears that needed to melt away and be shed.
I didn’t think I could take it. How could I work on people day in and day out and feel their pain, yet live with the fact that I could never completely fix it?
It’s taken me years to realize this one true thing: We are not here to fix each other.
Recently, I was giving a friend an impromptu acupressure session. I would get to a spot on each of his arms, and the deep sadness I felt there made me get choked up and want to pull away. At the same time, it made me want to solve it, fix it, tell him why life was beautiful. Tell him not to be so sad. We talked about it, and he acknowledged what I noticed. I fumbled for something to say or do that would make it go away. Seeing someone I care about experience pain ripped me up inside, and I wanted to make it better.
But I couldn’t. I can’t. And more importantly, I shouldn’t. It isn’t for me to do.
We look at the drive to save the world as something noble or heroic, and maybe it is to a certain extent. We look at the idea of Tikkun Olam, or healing the world, and set out on a quest to save the world, but I think we often get it wrong.
I’ve been getting it wrong for years.
If I look at you and see your sadness, I can’t cover it or make it go away. I cannot fix you. There is no magical Utopia where everyone is happy and whole. But that isn’t the end of the story. This is the place where cynics give up hope and decide that all is futile.
But I’m not a cynic. I believe we are hard-wired to care for each other. It’s why we are here: If there was a place to get to where everyone was happy and whole, we’d stop making art. There would be no music. There would be nothing left to write about. It would be a flat, expressionless existence instead of the one precious life we have.
The struggle is where we find the beauty.
People aren’t problems to solve. It’s not my job to fix anyone, but to love them. The heart can stretch to hold all things - even the difficult things. When it breaks, the point is not to reach out to each other and patch it closed again, but instead to fill each other. We don’t need to pretend each other’s darkness doesn’t exist or push it away.
And so I’m done. I surrender. I’ll say to the world:
I am not a hero; I cannot fix you. I am not strong; I cannot save you. I am weak; I cannot melt the frozen, broken places in you. I am insufficient; I cannot heal your pain. But I have hope, because I can do much more than that.
I can love you.
We need to seek out people who do not want to fix us. We need to seek out those who want to love us unconditionally while we fix ourselves.