How Can I Help?

It was one of the first crisp autumn mornings of the season in Tennessee and Fran and I were taking Bella up the hill for her morning walk. We were talking about life and the struggle to find meaning when so many things were changing around us. Since being forced to retire when the company she worked with for 30 years closed, Fran had felt lost; like she didn’t belong in her own life anymore. The grandkids were grown with kids of their own and aside from a few little things, she didn’t know what to do with her time, and she said something wholly untrue but something that stuck with me for weeks afterwards. She told me that she thought her life didn’t matter.

I try not to talk about my mother and the things that happened there but I can’t do justice to this story without it. I’ve always been sensitive to other people’s emotions. My narcissistic mother loved that about me. It’s probably the only thing she actually loved because it made me attentive to her needs. She couldn’t get enough of the attention, and every time she felt the attention waning, she found ways to make it impossible for me to give it anyone else. It was as if she had a straw stuck right in my heart, where she would just siphon all the goodness and light right out of me. Until the day I had no more to give.

I’m not sure Fran will ever know just how much her life matters. As good as I am with words, I haven’t been able to find the right ones to tell her that without her and my dad, I can’t say for sure that I’d be where I am right now; that their love for me showed me more than just the family I had missed most of my life, it patched that hole in my heart. It’s not that they did anything extraordinary. They were simply there, allowing me to refill my cup with their love and kindness time and time again, until I was able to hold it on my own. That mattered. It mattered because it gave me hope and then joy and then gratitude, and it left me wanting to give that same love and kindness to others. And so, it was during one of those daily walks with Fran and Bella that I realized something about myself that had pretty much alluded me all my life. Purpose.

My mother always made me feel that purpose was somehow tied to money. Her purpose in life, or so she said, was to be a nurse. To her, people who had no profession had no purpose. So for years, I struggled. I tried various jobs thinking purpose would come if I just had the right one. The problem with that was, and still is, the fact that I could absolutely care less about money. The more money I made, the bigger disconnect I felt with this “pursuit of purpose”. Whether I was climbing the corporate ladder or working in the trenches of a non-profit, it was all the same to me – a way to pay the bills and eat. No job has ever fulfilled my soul, and I can promise you 50+ jobs later, no job ever will.

You know what does fulfill my soul though?

Helping other people succeed.

I’ve been told that I am a “jill of all trades”, that there’s not much that I can’t do. While I take this as a compliment, I know that it’s not because I was born any smarter than the next person. It’s because I love learning things and I never say no to a challenge. I’m highly risk tolerant. And because of that, I’ve acquired a lot of skills I might not have otherwise. Website design? I know how to do that because a former boss assumed I could do it, so I learned. Grant writing? I’d never written a grant in my life until I was hired by The Center. I just spent weeks teaching myself how to do it before I went to the interview. Car repair? I’ve had my hands in places I didn’t know existed on a van, all because it’s exciting to me to learn. Medicare? SEO? Legal forms? Insurance? Installing a new router? Ring doorbells? Where to go for the best Chinese food? People ask me about these things, not because they think I’m Google, but because they know that I’ll take the time to help and together we’ll tackle a problem that may have seemed overwhelming otherwise.

Several months ago, I was sitting in a doctor’s office talking to the screener at the door when a very distraught elderly woman came in looking for a phone. Her car wouldn’t start and her husband was sitting outside in the heat. No one offered her a phone. No one offered to jump start her car. As she stood there on the verge of tears explaining how the key wouldn’t even come out of the ignition, I got up and walked toward her. “Do you mind if I take a look?” I asked. She led me to her car and I climbed into the driver’s seat and jiggled the key. Indeed, it was not going to budge. I greeted her husband and as I was looking at him, I noticed the car was in neutral. She had stopped one click short of putting it in park when she got out to assist her husband into the car. Thank God, she was not on a hill! I put the car in park and started it for her. She was grateful for the help, but more so, I was grateful for the experience. It made me feel good on a day that my mother had spent the whole morning telling me how worthless I was.

In most sports, athletes are credited not just for the score but for their assists. Why? Because helping someone else is just as valuable as making points on your own. That’s how teams are created. And in life, that’s how families, and friendships, and communities are created. My purpose then? I feel it’s to provide the assist – to take all those skills I’ve acquired and that passion for learning new ones and to use them to help others reach their goals too.

I knew it just as clear as I knew my own name that day on my walk with Fran and Bella. I knew it even more when I started meeting people on the road. And I feel it every day that I walk out the door. Like Max Goodwin in New Amsterdam, “How can I help?” has become my new mantra.

This has been a true game changer for me. Being around a narcissist for my entire life made it easy to falsely believe that only the “self” was important. What could I do for myself to make my life better? And I’ve spent a lot of time doing that, trying on different hats (vegetarian, minimalist, vanlifer, blogger, zero-waster, etc.) to see which one would give me the purpose and direction I’d sought since childhood. But those personas didn’t work any better than taking different jobs did. Why? Because this isn’t just about me, any more than it was ever just about my mom. Having a hard and fast list of rules and labels to live by only made it harder to connect with other people. I am all of those things, but I’m not just those things. I am a citizen of the world around me, a world that is full of other citizens, and unless we allow ourselves to connect with people on different paths, we’ll never see how we all fit together.

Seriously, you may not think it, but we all do fit together. I was placed in the path of the woman whose car wouldn’t start. Fran was placed in my path. And so it goes. We’re all connected, and we all need each others help.

So what am I going to do with this newfound purpose of mine?

Because I know myself and know that I have a tendency to go overboard at times, I’m still going to set boundaries, but I’m trying not to be so rigid. I truly want to learn from other people and I can’t do that self-confined to a box. Second, I’m putting myself in the path of possibility. I’ve started volunteering in places where I feel called, both formally and informally. I’ve made myself available when friends and loved ones have reached out for help, something I used to do with hesitation. And I’ve been working on listening without thinking of myself or trying to figure out the right thing to say. But mostly, I’ve just been getting up each day, grateful for all that I have and can do, and heading out into the world to see what small kindness I can share with someone else. It’s not my goal to be a superhero, just a loving person striving to make this world the kind of place I want to live in.