Our friend tells us about a difficult day they’re having or our child struggles with their homework and our immediate response is to take their problem on, think up a solution, offer an opinion, give advice.
When faced with a daily shower of depressing news headlines we internalise them, worrying and commenting on them with friends and online, feeling somehow responsible for them and how they play out.
When another person does something which annoys or offends us, we tuck it away inside, ranting about it, railing against it, brooding about it, trying to guess their motives, plotting how to stop it from happening again. Getting infuriated when it does happen again (as, of course, it always does).
When we think we may have annoyed or offended others, we worry about it, beating ourselves up, endlessly questioning ourselves and our actions, wondering how we can stop that happening the next time.
Every day, we labour under the illusion that by railing, worrying, sharing and offering opinions we can shape events, manage other people’s lives, control the uncontrollable. While trying to manage our anxiety about the many things outside of our control, we end up making ourselves and others more anxious.
And it’s ironic that we’re getting so overwhelmed and agitated that we aren’t even taking action on the things we care about. So we share articles about terrible suffering, instead of donating to or volunteering for the charities working to alleviate it. We moan about the government instead of voting or standing for Parliament. We confuse worrying, opining and marching with long-term, positive, visionary action. And in doing so we feel increasingly powerless.
It’s a peculiar kind of arrogance which leads us to think that we need to have a view on everything; that everything we do or think carries weight. And a perverse logic that thinks we are going to make a difference when we only talk about the things that matter most to us.
So how do we stop concerning ourselves with All The Things and find the energy to work towards what we really care about?
Here are some things to consider.
In our dealings with other people
We are responsible for ourselves, our own lives, our actions and our responses. I also think we have a responsibility not to deliberately harm or hurt others.
We are not responsible for others people’s lives, actions or responses to us. We cannot control them, and nor should we try. Worrying about them is a waste of time. Interfering is arrogant and disrespectful.
Of course, there is a middle ground around being kind and respectful in our dealings with other people and being there for those who are vulnerable and in need. What that looks like in practice is an individual choice. But too few of us do this well because we are spreading ourselves so thin.
Other people’s problems
When someone (and that includes our children) tells us their problems, they are not asking for our help. They are making conversation, thinking out loud, organising their thoughts.
The best thing we can do is stop and listen. If we really can’t stop ourselves butting in, the next best thing we can do is empathise. If we still can’t contain ourselves then we need to ask questions to help them clarify their thoughts.
We don’t need to take the problem on. When we come up with suggestions, advice or an opinion We. Are. Not. Helping. We are getting in the way.
When someone wants our help or advice, they will ask for it. At that point, we can decide if we are able to help them or not. Simple.
When something happens that you don’t like
Don’t resist it, rail against it, share it, deny it – it will only infect your mind like a virus.
Instead, first pay due attention. Notice it and the feelings it provokes.
Then accept it. It’s happened, it is what it is.
Then decide. Are you are going to take it on or let it go? Are you going to pick up the dirty laundry on the floor or leave it for the person who dropped it to pick up? Are you going to run for Parliament or trust the people who are paid to be MPs to do their job? Are you going to donate to or work for a particular charity or are you going to leave that work to those who are passionate about it while you get on with what you are called to do?
Then let it go. The decision is made, move on.
There is great peace in realising that not everything has to be our business. We don’t need to take everything on. But when we do, we need to do it wholeheartedly. That’s how we empower ourselves and others and can really make a difference.
I wrote this piece primarily as a reminder to myself, but if you find something useful in these words, then please let me know in the comments. Questions and contributions to the debate are also very welcome.