Paraphrasing, giving our all leaves us empty. It’s unregulated and indicates questionable boundaries. A better choice is to give our best.
Don’t give your all. Give your best.
What an amazing distinction! When I say that to myself, I feel as though a mountain has been lifted from my shoulders.
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I don’t have to give everything and everyone my all. I can choose instead to give certain people, situations, and efforts my best. My best financial donation. My best support. My best effort. My best investment. My best love.
My all is reserved for me and my writing.
The filter between my all and my best immediately clarifies life and choices. It frees me to recognize when I’ve done enough. I’ve given my best. I can stop now. I don’t have to give and give and give until I have nothing left, not even enough to crawl away. I have the power. I make the choices. I decide where the boundaries are. I make an offering of my best, and if it’s not wanted or useful, I move on.
After all, if my best hasn’t been good enough, likely my all won’t be, either. I know that intellectually, but I’ve lived my whole life with the firm conviction that my best is inadequate and withholding. What’s required of me is to give my all, every last penny, every last bit of my time, energy, patience, and love. Everything. No boundaries. No reserves. No personal needs. Boundaries, reserves, and needs are selfish.
Wait, says a little voice inside me. Doesn’t unconditional love mean giving it all continuously, no matter what?
Does it? Is that what unconditional love means?
Unconditional love means love without strings attached.
I don’t know if human love is limitless. I don’t know if mine is. I’ve loved several people with everything in me before, but today I don’t feel as though any of those loved ones found my love useful or even noticed it for what it was. Perhaps it was lost in translation.
Perhaps they never wanted it or needed it in the first place.
I still love some of those people, because they are woven into my flesh and bone, but we are not actively connected and for the most part my love is mute and suffering. I have not found an acceptable way to give it, which is to say I have not found a way to feel it’s recognized, valuable, received or even welcome. It’s unconditional, but it’s unwanted.
Yet I do know one person who longs for my best and my all – all my unconditional love, all my compassion and empathy, all my strength and wisdom, all my creativity and courage.
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As I approach my 60s, I spend less and less time thinking about how to give my all and waiting for scraps and crumbs to come back to me. Now I’m focused on how to connect with and unconditionally love myself. Because I deserve it. And it’s my turn. And I want me. I need me.
The people (and cats) in my life get my best. Sometimes that seems regrettably inadequate, but I’m intentional about giving my best to those I interact with, work with, and live with. I give my best to what I do in life, from cleaning the bathroom to teaching a child to swim. My best love, care, and effort are no mean contributions to my loved ones and my community.
But I don’t owe my all to anyone. Not at this point in my life. I’ve never yet given my all without subsequent emotional bankruptcy it took me years to recover from. I’ve never yet felt my all was reciprocated. Perhaps that’s as it should be.
I thought I had to give my all. I thought that’s what love was. I thought one proves love, commitment, loyalty, what have you, with an investment of one’s all. I thought that investment was guaranteed to provide rich returns.
So far, I’ve failed to reap rewards from that strategy. I’m rethinking my investment plan. Might it be that giving my all to me increases the quality of my best to others? Could it be that giving my best to others will prove a better investment than giving my all? Is this a case of working smarter, not harder?
Maybe our all is only useful when we give it to ourselves. Maybe it doesn’t work elsewhere because it’s not supposed to. Maybe our best is better for the people around us.
In any case, I feel lighter, freer, and healthier, both in myself and in my relationships, when I endeavor to do my best within healthy boundaries and reserve my all for myself and my writing.
Mary Oliver writes about “the light that can shine out of a life.” I’ve been resting in that phrase over the holiday weekend.
When I think of “life” the first things that come to mind are not human lives, but those rooted in the green world, the world that sustains me. I thought of light shining out of lives as I deadheaded and watered velvety purple petunias in their hanging basket, leggy now but still blooming richly, as though the first frost is not around the corner. I thought of it as I diced fresh sage, thyme, parsley, and garlic chives from my garden with our sharpest knife to make herbed bread. On my low-carb diet I eat a half a piece a day and these two loaves will last me for weeks. The scent of baking bread with herbs and onion fills the house like late summer incense.
I think of human life, too — strangers, friends and family, all kinds of people, a great tidal wave of humanity straining the planet’s resources to the uttermost limits, but each individual a soul with hopes, dreams, history, wounds, and memories. Each with potential to be a light. Each with equal potential to be darkness.
The thing about light is it’s meaningless unless we know darkness.
I want to be a source of light in the world. More than that, I want to be a specific kind and intensity of light for specific people in specific ways. I’m pleased if my light illuminates a step or two for others, or provides some comfort, but the light I’m choosing to shine is really directed at a small handful of people.
Appreciate my light, dammit! Open your eyes! I’m shining for you!
I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that allowing light to shine from my life is where my power ends. The intensity and quality of my particular light is not in my power. I can’t control the eyes seeing it or the steps it guides or companions.
This morning I took an early walk at dawn. The sky was orange and pink, and as I was heading home with the sun rising behind me light glowed in the trees, which are just beginning to turn the same colors. It was so lovely my eyes burned with tears.
That light wasn’t for me. It wasn’t mine. Birds and animals and yes, people too, all had their being under that morning sky. The trees bathed in it as though they loved it. I just happened to be one of many awake and about, and I saw. I saw and I was blessed.
Another thing about light is we can’t see it if we don’t look.
I wonder sometimes if we’re losing our ability to see lights shining from lives. Are our eyes too weary and distracted by a world full of visual noise and endless screens to find starlight or firefly light? If we light a candle in our soul can we find our way back to it when we’re lost in darkness? Are we able to value only the glaring light of sun or spotlight?
We were cleaning out a storage area under the attic eaves this weekend, and I crawled on my hands and knees with a flashlight, noting wiring that needs attention, dust, the desiccated bodies of wasps, and signs of mice. It struck me holding a flashlight in a dark place provides illumination in the direction it’s pointed, but the holder can’t actually see the light source itself. Can we ever know the quality and brightness of our own light? Are we able to judge its value or where it’s most needed? Can we control which direction it shines in?
“The light that can shine out of a life.” Nourishing light. Guiding light. Light connecting us to the web of life that is community. Inspiring light. Yet the value and outcomes of allowing our light to shine is beyond our control, beyond our knowledge.
Letting light shine out of our lives is an offering we can choose to make, and then we’re done. Perhaps the rest is none of our business.
In 2018, I wrote about making offerings. This morning I looked at my list of possible topics for this week’s post, but realized none of them really grab me at the moment; I’ve been thinking again about making offerings.
The reason offerings are in my mind is because I’m struggling, like so many of us, to find new routines and priorities without expiring from boredom, losing my mind, or allowing futility to paralyze me. It occurred to me, as I did my daily wipe down of our kitchen with bleach wipes while the bacon was cooking this morning, to think about what seems like endless disinfecting as an offering, or perhaps even a prayer, for my loved ones and for all of us on the planet.
As I go about my days, fear for my loved ones, near and far, dogs me. I know it’s not useful. I know watching what’s happening in Montana, Colorado and New York, as well as here in Maine, is not helping them. But what do we do with our love for others, near and far, during times like these?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who already feels that they never want to clean, wipe or disinfect anything ever again. I’m sure I’m not the only one marveling at how many thousands of things we touch a day (including ourselves) and feeling overwhelmed with trying to avoid this tiny, invisible, persistent, deadly virus.
While I cleaned the counters with the smell of bleach in my nose, while I rubbed away at the fridge, the freezer, the washing machine, the microwave, the toaster oven, the coffeepot and the teakettle, I imagined millions of people all over the world at home, at work, in hospitals, in businesses, doing the same thing, day after day. I imagined all those people with fearful and heavy hearts for their loved ones, doing their best, taking whatever steps they can for themselves and those around them, day after day.
Later, after breakfast, I disinfected surfaces in the bathroom, another new daily chore. Then I came up to my attic aerie and here, too, I will wipe down every surface I can with bleach wipes before I go to work.
At work, though only staff have used the pool for the last couple of weeks, I will don gloves and pitch in to do our daily disinfecting of chairs, benches, handles and knobs, light switches, soap and hand sanitizer dispensers, keyboards, telephones, counters, desks, chairs, fans, remote controls, pens, handicapped door buttons . . . We did that yesterday. We’ll do it today. It will be done tomorrow.
Is there any point? Is it helping? Will it keep us and those around us well?
So many questions, and no answers.
I know some people can shrug and say whatever will be will be. I recognize the truth in that, but I can’t not try. I must do what I can, even with no guarantee it’s useful, even without support from others (emotional labor, anyone?), even though I myself sometimes wonder why I’m working so hard. It’s simply what I can do.
And I’m not alone. There are people in Montana, New York and Colorado, people just like me, perhaps with loved ones in Maine (!), who are making their best effort, dogged, determined, and putting one foot in front of another. Or perhaps I should say disinfecting one thing after another, washing their hands, and social distancing. They undoubtedly are asking the same questions: Is there any point? Is it helping? Will it keep us and those around us well?
So, today, as my choice is to once again disinfect surfaces here at home and this afternoon at work, wash my hands over and over again, and social distance from my partner, my friends, my colleagues and strangers, I’m allowing myself to dwell on my loved ones as I disinfect and wash and distance, to remember their faces; to pray for their safety and health; to love them as hard as I want to; to cry, even.
Perhaps in the moment I’m washing my hands in Maine someone in Montana is washing hers, thereby sparing my asthmatic adult son. Perhaps in the moment I’m social distancing in the line in the grocery store, another person is staying six feet away from someone I love in Colorado.
Let my fear be an offering, and my tears. Let my work be an offering. Let my chapped hands and the smell of bleach and disinfectant be an offering. Let my love, my reverence for the cycles of life and death, my faith and my hope be an offering. Let my self-care be an offering. Let my willingness to do whatever it takes be an offering.