One of the chief cruelties of depression is how it encloses us in a dark tunnel, a space that doesn't extend beyond the borders of ourselves, our thwarted desires and hopes, stifling loss and bitterness. The light of compassion for others doesn't reach us in there, yet that is precisely what would help us emerge.
"Put your mind on something else, or your troubles will take up the whole world," Hazel Wolf told me at the age of 101, a few months before she died. She was one of the first environmentalists in this country, someone who gave to her community until the last moments of her life. She went on with her admonition:
You can't do two things at the same time. So if you're thinking about saving the environment, you're not thinking about yourself and your problems. You can always find a way to be of service, instead of sitting home and watching TV. Help an organization do a mailing. Stuff envelopes. Get signatures on petitions. Make calls to get out the vote. There's always something useful you can do... All of these activities and the friendships that come with them keep you from feeling sorry for yourself and focusing on your aches and pains.
The hardest burden in life is self-centeredness. Selfishness comes naturally to us; we see to our own needs first. It's tough to oppose the selfish impulse long enough to reap the ample benefits of reciprocity, the giving and taking that in slow increments rewards and enhances relationships. We also fall into the trap of blaming others for our troubles, which is so much easier than looking inward. We slide into making excuses for the hurt that we cause, if we notice our own offenses at all, at the same time that we focus minutely on the faults of others and rush to enumerate the many hurts we have received.
I knew a man who led the self-centered life of addiction for several decades. Near the end of his life, he was suddenly thrust into an experience of physical helplessness. He was so moved by the kindness of the paid caregivers who washed his sheets and cooked his food that he came out of himself and expressed a great interest in their lives, helping them in every way he could. He lived each of the months he had left with a spiritual clarity and abundance of feeling that needed no blunting with alcohol. At his funeral, these women wept harder for him than anyone else in the chapel.
We are fortunate when something happens that extricates us from an excessive focus on ourselves. Alchemists employed the concept opus contra naturam, an idea which Jung recast as a struggle against our own nature. The heat of a devastating experience can transform us, shifting our engagement in living such that something new results. In the worst of times, if we force ourselves to step outside the airless enclosure of our unhappiness, we usually find fresh life awaiting us. I am not talking about something grand or heroic. It can be as small as an ordinary gesture, like asking a neighbor with a sick husband if she needs anything at the grocery store. Picking up a quart of milk on behalf of someone else can become a deep encouragement. An otherwise useless day acquires the heft of purpose.
More than anything else, loss awakens our compassion and keeps us attuned to the importance of living in concert with others. Thus, an interest in serving broader aims tends to keep mounting as we get older -- contributing to our local community, helping to ensure the health of natural areas in our vicinity -- whatever we can do that connects us to the human prospect as a whole, even in a small way. We see that generosity is the path to contentment in the face of our mortality.
By the end, most of us become convinced that the spirit for a life well lived derives from what we give to others, not from what we amass for ourselves. During times when we have little influence over painful events in our own lives, we may still be encouraged by the effect we are able to have on others' circumstances. No matter what happens, we know that we can always do something for someone else.
The most vibrant people of any age are those who try to do what they can to make life better for others. The human prospect is too bleak unless we literally extend ourselves. The sooner we relocate our strivings outward, rather than remaining confined in self-seeking projects, the more at ease we will be with whatever life presents.
Copyright Wendy Lustbader. Adapted from Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older and What's Worth Knowing, both published by Tarcher/Penguin.