For the Sake of Others

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The story goes that in certain Native American tribes when a person became psychologically unstable, she or he was placed in the middle of a circle of tribal members — men and women, children, old people — and required to spin around and around until she collapsed to the ground. The tribal member toward whom her body faced now became her special charge. She was obligated to care for that person, see to their needs, and be their companion and friend. The understanding was that caring for someone else is what ignites personal healing.

shadow on wallWhen we ache from the pain of loss or rejection, the pain of depression or loneliness, the pain of feeling unloved, or from bodily pain and impending death, the ache can feel agonizingly private to us. We feel alone in our pain: it encloses us in an isolation that feels terribly unfair. How is it possible then to offer care for others?

When Robert Kennedy lay dying from an assassin’s bullet, his blood spreading across a kitchen floor, he opened his eyes and asked, “Is everyone all right?” I like to believe that question eased his homecoming. At least it taught me this counter-intuitive calculus: when you are in need, give.

“Giving” in this way requires a shift in our hearts. In moving from self-concern to “other-concern,” we enter a deeper belonging.

The Native American ritual is charged by the healing power of belonging, not altruism, for altruistic behavior benefits another at one's own expense. The circle of tribal members embraces the wounded person, who returns that embrace. Both are healed.

So to say “when you are in need, give,” is not an injunction to be virtuous or to sacrifice your need in favor of another’s. It is to step from the loneliness of separation into the seamlessness of Being where nothing and no one has ever been separate from anything else. Our absolute belonging is not an idea, nor do we need to make it happen nor make ourselves worthy of it. It’s already and always so.

“Stepping into the seamlessness of Being” doesn’t require us to travel any distance — it may be more accurate to say it steps into us when we allow it to. A generous heart is first of all a receptive heart.

If I feel the need to be seen and loved for what I am, and I sit in that need waiting for someone to respond with what I need, I might sit for a long time and be disappointed. But if I stop waiting and simply give, as best I can, what I’ve been waiting for, my world turns inside out. The connection I longed for is revealed — maybe not in self-centered satisfaction or in the way I expected it, but in a more fundamental belonging that I am now able to receive.

The way this happens is a kind of magic that is always available to us. The distressed woman falls to the ground and when she looks up she sees in front of her an old toothless grandmother. She gets to her feet and approaches the old woman. She takes her hand. What is that warmth that passes between their hands?