Chapter 5 – Others Before Self

A young woman, despite suffering from anxiety and clinical depression, found herself in a caring, loving relationship. She admitted she never thought she would find someone as loving and generous as her current partner. However, she was riddled with guilt about the difficulties he faced dealing with her frequent afflictions. “I am not good enough for him. He deserves so much more. I need to end our relationship,” she told me holding back tears.

I asked if she felt her partner struggled to deal with her issues. “He says he loves me, wants to be with me, and understands what he is facing by being with me. But he deserves more. I need to leave,” she repeated. “He will be happier if he finds someone who is easier to be with.” “So, you will give up your happiness in a loving, caring relationship so your partner can be happy?” I asked. “Absolutely,” she said. “That’s the least I can do if I love him.” I continued, “A few moments ago, you suggested you are not good enough for him, and yet, you are willing to give up your own happiness for his. Is it possible that that alone is proof you are more than enough? Despite your own struggles, your first thoughts are for his happiness rather than yours.” “Thank you, I hadn’t thought about it that way. Let me think about that some more,” she said as we ended the call.

There is a story that recurs regularly on the Lifeline, and it sounds like, “I am exhausted, weary to the bone. I have done so much for so many other people, and now, when I am desperate for help, no one is there for me. I feel deserted.”

I remember one caller for whom this was her story. She felt so alone and deserted by family and friends, and she was in so much need of support, she said she could simply not go on. Often, when I was unable to uncover a reason for a caller to persist in the face of despair, I would simply ask, “In spite of your pain and loneliness, is there a reason why you want to live?” This caller simply said, “I have so much left to give.”

I believe it is hardwired into human DNA to be generous. Whenever I spoke with callers overwhelmed and exhausted by a life of giving, the most productive and life-affirming path forward was always, paradoxically, to give even more. Others, once again, before self.

I spoke to a young actor, who, because he was having trouble finding work, began to doubt himself as a thespian. Now, even though he had helped innumerable other people, it seemed no one was there for him in his hour of need. As his story unfolded, and he described a recent project in which he employed more than fifty people, I came to appreciate this young man’s innate sense of the importance of relationships and his ability to create community. It was clear that at his core he was “other-centered.” It came as no surprise that, because others are his priority, caring for himself seemed selfish. He often felt self-hatred when he focused so much on himself.

I was careful to use appropriate language when talking to callers, however, there were moments when I simply could not help myself. As we talked, his self-confidence grew as he began to realize his true power erupted, not from acting, but from his compassion and empathy for others, and his innate understanding of relationships and community. He told me there were many in his life who, believing his success lay in his thespian talents, would say things like “You’re going to be great someday.” He told me how much he resented those remarks since he had already given so much to the world. As we both came to understand his real talents lay elsewhere, I suggested he look at them and say, “Fuck you…I’m great right now.” “You know what, you’re right!” he said. We both had a good laugh as his self-doubts eased ever so slightly.

I grew up in a world in which LGBTQ+ would have been nothing more than a strange concatenation of letters. I lived my formative years at a time when the incredibly complex issues of gender and gender identity existed as they do today but were hidden…unspoken. I have come to appreciate these issues—and hope to always advocate for acceptance and understanding—but they were such foreign ideas growing up, I have a long journey ahead to even begin to fully understand and accept unconditionally.

I say all this as prelude to a call I received from a young man struggling with acceptance from his family over his chosen career. He was a successful drag queen. He was so successful he was able to support his extended family by performing around the world. Despite his generosity, he felt a lack of familial acceptance, and was so distraught he was considering jumping from the upper floor of a building from which he was calling.

Unconditional acceptance of callers is essential if there is any hope of connection. As the call began, because of the sheltered life I led, I feared I would fail this young man. While I can relate to hundreds, perhaps thousands of professions and careers, this was totally foreign to me. I had never even met a drag queen. I felt hopelessly unprepared, certain I would never find words to help.

I needn’t have worried. It was immediately clear this was a person who yearned for acceptance—that of his family, but most importantly with acceptance of self. I heard in his voice that, despite all he had given to others, he felt, somehow, his life was not enough.

His life was so much more than enough. As we spoke, I discovered a place of generosity within him that changed the course of our conversation. Whenever and wherever he performed, because of his renown, young men who wished a similar career looked up to him. He always took time to encourage them in every way: from perfecting aspects of their performance and wardrobe, to helping them find the courage and self-esteem to follow their dreams in a culture that largely rejected them. “Do you see what your life is really all about?” I asked. “Can you see how you are making the lives of so many others better because of your kindness, love, and generosity?” As we spoke, I could hear the strength in his voice and the meaning of his story growing. My admiration of this young man and his desire to change the lives of others also grew.

Those few moments of intimate conversation changed both of us. He was altered by the acceptance and affirmation I offered and my perspective of what he offered the world. And I discovered an ability to pierce my personal veil of prejudice and peer into the humanity of a young man’s love, empathy, and compassion. Many years ago, I listened to a series of lectures entitled “Questions of Value,” by Dr. Patrick Grim, professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. It was a remarkable twelve hours. One of the many profound questions he explores is what makes for a valuable life. He concludes that such a life is, at its core, admirable, and surrounded by a shell that is enviable. He goes on to say that the challenge for so many whose admirable core dominates, is that that core never seems enough. No matter how much they have given, there is more to give. I remain humbled by thousands who, through their lives, have shown me there is always more to give to others before self.

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