“You either get bitter or you get better. It’s that simple. You either take what has been dealt to you and allow it to make you a better person, or you allow it to tear you down. The choice does not belong to fate, it belongs to you.” Josh Shipp, author and motivational speaker
A disturbing outburst of “mental illness” continues among children the same as adults. Since dealing daily for a decade with my own anxiety and depression, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the problem and solutions. Like most of us, I want to get better.
After thousands of hours of research, reading, and writing, I ended up with a nonmedical, nonacademic evaluation of what’s happening in me and around me. Our issues result not from disorders, but dysfunction. I’m not talking about true mental illness, but the multitude of labels we’re passing out daily to children and adults who will be enabled by it, not helped.
The problem mostly results from lack of taking responsibility for our own lives, including setting boundaries and following through with consequences for others and ourselves. We’re moving away from betterment instead of toward it. By eliminating discipline, avoiding discomfort, and convincing ourselves we should always be happy and so should everyone else, we’re losing our foothold in reality.
Instead of dealing with our dis-ease over having to grow up, we’re creating more diseases, mental and physical. We’re driving ourselves crazy. We’re making ourselves sick. We’re hurting those around us and ourselves.
I was standing close by when I overheard a friend tell a mother (who complained often about her children’s behavior), “Your children will get better when you get better.”
I cringed because her advice sounded harsh, but rang true.
In the Bible, Matthew talks about how we need to take the log out of our own eye before criticizing a speck in our friend’s, and apparently in our children’s eye also. The Message’s version of verse 7 says, “Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.”
Twelve step programs suggest we “focus on ourselves,” not as permission to be selfish, but as a prescription for how to grow up and get better so we can serve others better. We can’t take anyone farther down a road to recovery than we’ve gone ourselves.
In his song “Man In The Mirror,” Michael Jackson sang about how to make the world a better place – look at yourself and change what needs changing … in you. There’s a well-known poem that’s often referred to (incorrectly) by the same name as Jackson’s song. The poem’s correct title is “The Guy In The Glass,” written in 1934 by Dale Wimbrow. Its essence is we can fool the world, but not ourselves. Dale wrote about what matters most, that we can look at ourselves in the mirror and like who we see.
But here we stand, other-gazing as if it’s an Olympic competition. We’re aware how bad others are while denying our own badness. We stare at their mistakes and say, “I would never …” while we’re doing it. We compare ourselves and come out way ahead, but trip looking back at them.
We find ourselves smack dab in the middle of an untended life. An unhappy life. An unlived life.
This anonymous quote jumpstarted me at least thinking about my own life even if I didn’t do much different for years, “I’m an expert on everyone else’s life while I have no idea what to do with my own.”
So did this quote by Helen Hayes that I intended for my family, but ended up needing myself. “Every human being on this earth is born with a tragedy, and it isn’t original sin. He’s born with the tragedy that he has to grow up. That he has to leave the nest, the security, and go out to do battle. He has to lose everything that is lovely and fight for a new loveliness of his own making, and it’s a tragedy. A lot of people don’t have the courage to do it.”
My friend Betty helped too. When I’d call her focused on someone else, she’d gently bring me back around to the problem (me) and the solution (also me) by making a joke, “You spot it, you got it.”
When I’m talking about a flaw in someone else, I likely have a same or similar issue that needs my attention. Either that or I’m avoiding my work or my own difficult emotions – the ones I don’t want to feel. Looking at myself first fixes a multitude of shortcomings in and around me. It’s amazing how much better everyone else looks when I get better.
First, self-improvement keeps my focus on the only person I can change. When I change for the better, I increase my chances of helping others get better.
Second, self-improvement helps me avoid turning my spouse, children, and friends into projects. Loving and living by example is everything. I live my life instead of fretting about theirs. It’s like a counselor told me about giving advice, “You can love ‘em into heaven or preach ‘em into hell.”
I spent years saying, “I’m better” and telling others how to get better too. It wasn’t until I actually got better that people around me thanked me for my help I didn’t know I was giving. Henry David Thoreau said, “Men will believe what they see.”
Finally, self-improvement leads us naturally to helping others. When we get better, we want others to get better. We’re willing to serve in the way God intended, not the ways we think are helpful, but aren’t.
There’s a catch, though. Author and speaker Michele Cushatt forewarned our Hope Writers group about how easy it is to become self-absorbed because of our pain even though it’s the very reason a lot of us write. We’re desperate to help others get through their pain, but we get stuck (and may even do harm) because we skip working through our own. It’s true what this quote by an unknown writer says, “If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.”
The hard work of getting better is just that, hard work. We help each other by getting better ourselves. The actual daily grind to “better” is ours to take alone just like teaching a child to walk. In the beginning, we hold up the child and we hold their hands. We walk beside them the first few times. We cheer them on. In the end, though, they take their own steps. They fall down. They get back up, and they get better at walking.
In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron included Carl Jung’s quote, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
When we get better, so do our spouses, children, extended families, friends, coworkers, and communities. God, help us get better so we’re setting better examples.
What ways can you get better that’d help you and everyone else too?
In This Together,