I learn many things from my patients in therapy. Most of those things that I “learn,” I really already knew, but unfortunately, so many of us are amazingly adept at avoiding or ignoring what we really do, deep down, know.
Anyway, I was given one of these simple but profound lessons when a 74-year-old patient said to me the following, “I have come to the conclusion that there is a positive correlation between how much attention I pay to myself and how unhappy I am. I am the happiest when I am the least self-absorbed. My awareness of the needs of others is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else.”
I have used this insight with patients many times in therapy. Self-absorption and focusing on one’s problems are strong contributors to depression, hopelessness and elevated stress. I frequently tell depressed people who are isolated that it is essential that they do something to “get out of themselves.” I tell them to help someone who is less fortunate, to join a support group to connect with other people, or even get a pet, simply to be aware of the needs of something beyond themselves. Care for and about others not only improves the world, it is good medicine. And on days that my ego has been bruised or life does not seem to be sufficiently living up to my dreams, it is a lesson that I must remember.
In my novel, Never Forget My Soul, I describe the lives of two descendants of Holocaust survivors who struggle, in different ways, with excessive focus on self and disconnection from others. One of these characters is a dynamic surgeon, named Joe, who is socially bold but who dares not let anyone truly close to him.
After suffering a serious loss, he comes to an old acquaintance of his, a rabbi, to ask fundamental questions about the goodness of G-d and the world He created. Joe sees G-d as cruel and says that this even can be seen in the Torah. He says that G-d intended to destroy Sodom and that it took Abraham’s plea for mercy for G-d to consider sparing it. Joe says there is no mercy to be found in G-d.
Here is the answer the rabbi gave him:
The root of all human goodness and happiness is the awareness that we are not alone in this world, and the root of all evil and despair is the belief that we are alone. Abraham’s life was infused with the awareness that he was not alone. He was the founder of monotheism, so some might say that Abraham’s awareness that G-d was always near to him kept Abraham aware that he was not alone.
But I think this is not the most important reason why Abraham did not feel alone. Even more than his relationship with G-d, Abraham is remembered for his relationship with his fellow man. The real reason that Abraham knew that he was not alone is because he felt that all people were his brothers and sisters and he believed that he had a responsibility to promote the wellbeing of any person whom he could influence.
G-d did not initially withhold mercy from Sodom to be cruel to Sodom. Rather, He did so to show kindness to Abraham. What was the nature of this kindness? This kindness was giving Abraham the greatest gift that a man can have—the profound awareness of the importance of others and one’s connectedness to them. G-d loved Abraham, so He gave him many opportunities to experience this highest of all gifts—the opportunity to demonstrate love of others in our actions. The action that was required of Abraham in the story of Sodom was to stand his ground with G-d Himself and bargain for the possibility that Sodom be spared.
Now, Joe, there is only one way that a person can have that level of commitment to the wellbeing of others. You have to perceive that other people are real and that other people are part of you. If my neighbor is hungry, then, in a sense, I am hungry. If a little girl in Asia is raped or tortured, then it’s happening to me. Abraham felt this as a reality, and that fueled his passion for the wellbeing of others.
The truth is that G-d loves all of us. He gives us all countless opportunities to access this highest of all gifts. The real challenge is to notice that this gift is being offered.
Coming out of our self-absorption is not easy. It takes a lot of practice and patience with oneself. Here are a few suggestions for increasing interest in and involvement with other people.
Remember that whoever you deal with during the day is not just a means to an end, but a person. This includes the bank teller, mailman and supermarket cashier. Treat them the way you would like to be treated. Give them a genuine smile and a sincere “thank you.”
Make the commitment to give at least ten minutes of your undivided attention to your spouse every day. Put all your concerns aside and just listen to him or her. This will certainly make him or her happier, and you may find that you start to enjoy him or her more by investing more time in your relationship.
Join a group that has interests similar to your own. Attend a shiur, join a hiking group, or volunteer for a political action association. By becoming involved in the lives of others you will discover more and more ways to give to (and receive from) them.
Ask yourself what life would look like if you stood in the shoes of another person. Given their life history, unmet needs, disappointments, aspirations and personality, what might life look like if seen from that person’s eyes? Of course, the more you actually know about that person, the more you will be able to answer this question. So listen closely to him or her and ask questions. It’s a technique that is particularly helpful in improving our relationships with almost anyone, especially difficult people.
Chazal tell us that our highest aspiration should be to emulate the attributes of G-d. He is the giver to all, and He requires nothing for Himself. Although this level is beyond our ability, we certainly make ourselves more like Him the more we give to others.
Michael Milgraum, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, in Silver Spring Maryland. He provides group, individual and couples therapy and performs psychological evaluations. His new novel, Never Forget My Soul, is available from major online booksellers. He can be reached at (301) 588-5861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.