At 55, those delightful yoga sessions that instantly feel delicious deep down in the sinews and muscles, triggering pleasure sensors in the brain, are farther and fewer in between, even in a daily practice. Most days that great good feeling opens up only after slow beginnings, working steadily into full-throttle fluidity and warmth. I treasure those moments of recognizing deep physiological release and mental liberation. My mind soars with my body’s surrender to more, deeper, and longer stretches, everything opening, including possibility.
Seems a gift on a day like today in recalling a snippet of conversation with my niece and her seven-year-old son yesterday. I used the word “stupid,” and my great-nephew wagged his finger at me and turned to his mom to tell on me. “Ohhh, she said ‘stupid.'” I too forbade my children to speak that word, instilling a sense of language’s power early. I’m sure my niece’s reason is the same as mine: to avoid the word being hurled like a weapon at someone. The word is an overused missile, more so because it’s not profanity, which almost everyone agrees is not used in polite company, especially not by those under a certain age (which is a writing for another day: What is the right age and why?)
But connections in my brain today, like a wonderful flexibility day and this conversation, float what is really on my mind this morning: the word “should.” Now that is the “stupid” for adults, something that ought to be used infrequently and with the same circumspection and reverence as the verboten “stupid” of seven-year-olds. The word injures, even as it has a benign, even helpful use. I know more people who get in trouble with “should” than with “stupid.”
For example, me. When I get caught up in obligations to others, in particular, things I believe I should do but don’t necessarily want to do, I immediately thrust myself into a defensive posture. I resist even as I surrender to a sense of obligation, which reflexively arises all too often. I could blame my mother who I could label an enabler and, as a neglected child, someone who over compensated for feelings of inadequacy and deprivation by giving—too much, if there is such a thing. And there is.
When obligations to others cause an internal wince, one that ensnares in the balance of should-but-don’t-want-to, then we’re in the category of words that “stupid” is for little ones. When a child on the playground calls another child stupid, the victim may feel angry and defensive at first or, like my great-nephew, feel crushed with hurt and self-doubt. My great-nephew has learning challenges and so would feel particularly sensitive to the word. After consideration, the injured feelings may dissipate in the recipient’s own truth or rationalization.
But “should” can also strike us hard, like a no-escape clause. The compulsion to please others wrestles with the resistance to give up precious resources like time, energy and money, oftentimes. Time is at a premium for most of us adults. Those who have time may feel lovely about their time-giving, donating their energies and resources to feeding the homeless and encouraging the aged in nursing homes, for instance, but I’m not referring to those who can afford ample time to donate. I’m speaking about those whose time is restricted and so must make considered choices about how time is meted out, people with families and jobs.
Everything is a matter of balance. An easy concept, however, we all get into those tight spaces trapped between desire to help others outside our circle of first degree obligations—the must’s—like kids and parents, siblings falling on the outskirts of that circle. I’m speaking about those outside the inner circle.
Acquaintances or employers, for instance. I started working for a gentleman who I like very much. I needed to make a little extra money each month to contribute to my out-of-state college daughter’s expenses, so I took another part-time job, one of three. The deal was low pay at first but higher pay with time. I agreed, as I’m fortunate enough not to depend on the extra money to feed and shelter my family. I also liked the man. He gave me a chance to do work without experience and where others might not have hired me. I wanted to help make his business flourish, as he had suffered hard times and needed that extra helping hand.
When he had trouble paying the first paycheck, I was sympathetic and told him I didn’t mind being a slow-pay just not a no-pay employee. He did pay eventually, partial payments, and then no payments and then another partial payment, and then I started to take liberties with the time I spent there, coming in later, not coming at all some days, prioritizing paying work or my sleep over the too often non-paying job.
So after a one-day workweek while he was out of town, I figured I passively aggressively lost my job. A lot went unspoken, though my employer promised a lot of future revenue and opportunity. I didn’t mind the job so long as I was learning something, liked the guy, and felt I was doing something good for another human being in need. Those sustained me—until my daughter’s car needed a thousand dollars’ worth of repair and I couldn’t afford my car payment for the month. That’s when I came to a Monday morning crisis. Do I go in to the office—hot, stuffy and smelly—sweat it out for a few hours in hopes he will pay me something for my efforts today, as I know he will eventually, or expend my energies elsewhere finding that extra money that I truly need right now?
The should’s kicked in when I thought about helping this guy: I should have been straight with him at the outset about not getting paid and the resultant feeling abused and unenthused about the job. So much so that the balance had tipped in that final week towards saving the gas money to drive there. But I should have told him about how I felt. I questioned whether I should go in and talk to him to let him know, even after this rift—my not showing while he was out of town and his not reproaching me for it. He had not answered my text asking him whether he had returned. I worried he was mad at me. I didn’t want to disappoint.
The defensive ego, of course, resounded a “Why should I worry about this guy’s impression of me when he did not fulfill his promises to pay?” And “My time is precious and cannot give to a stranger that takes from my inner circle.” And “I should be focusing on money opportunities elsewhere to take care of my family’s needs.” It should be a no-brainer.
But my ego craves a shiny image—to be perceived as good, not flaky or weak or passive-aggressive. The urge compels action equal to the urge to help and please others. There are benefits and detriments in that impulse, of course. I feel good giving, and often giving without expectation yields unexpected rewards, intangibles far worthier than money, but sometimes even money. Generally, I strive to align my thoughts with amplitude and compassion in a material world, no easy task, in hopes of achieving that equilibrium that never comes in merely seeking money to live.
But at 55, the should’s should not be gripping me as they do in tortuous roads to re-realization that giving to get something is not giving, and thoughtful consideration of my intentions—a mere pause or micro-meditation—relieves me and everyone I touch of unfulfilled obligations and responsibilities to me and those who depend on me.
Giving with expectation, without right to give away what belongs to another, whether time, energy, or money, is not proper giving. It’s merely exchange or thievery.
How much there is to practice each day. Breathing, for one. One simple breath before speaking, a long one, helps resist the urgency to speak reactively, to leap before lingering over a proposition, a request, and another’s urgency. Calm restraint. It doesn’t come easily or as automatically as raising my hand to volunteer at a Parent-Teachers meeting at my kids’ school.
Giving comes naturally. Being mindful does not. It is a continual, sustained effort. Some days—like a morning’s gift of the pliable yoga body—are easier than others.