My favorite book, The Great Gatsby, begins like this:
“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember not everyone has had the same advantages you’ve had.”
A similar sentiment, arriving by text message, in this new age of gadgetry and phone messaging, reaches me across the wires. It reminds me of truths we should all be accountable for this year, or any year, and also raises hard questions.
It can be hard, sometimes, to not look at others with an opinionated eye. We wonder could they be doing this or that better; could they be a better parent, a better employee, a better friend, could they be better dressed or less negative or more thin, could their house be cleaner or could they be more punctual? How could they vote for that person? Do they deserve all the things they have? Do they appreciate them? Do we deserve them more? How can they continue to make the same mistakes over and over again? Don’t they see that we can SEE them? Have they no shame? No accountability?
The answer is never easy. And it never satisfies. Therefore the only realistic way to handle such a quandary is to never ask yourself these questions. When you raise your eyes to look at someone with judgement, you do yourself a disservice. All we can do is plug forward of our own accord, making our way as we go along. There are reasons for pride and envy being considered mortal sins. Holding people to impossible standards only succeeds in you holding YOURSELF to impossible standards, and that’s no way to live.
I have a friend who used to have to remind me of this a lot. The friend in question has been in trouble in more ways than one, more times than he could count. He’s had a lot of chances; more than most people have. This friend of mine tells me to be patient, to be kind, and never to forget that helping people less fortunate than myself is the best gift I can give – not just to them, but to me. He tells me this to keep me motivated, when he sees me falter. See, he’s looking from an indeterminable position. Above or below, we just can’t tell. He is my self-appointed compass, and he tells me that I’m too hard lately, I need to be softer.
Often I’ve balked at this friend, thinking to myself, “Who are YOU to tell me this?” Considering their current life path, it seems a little rich. All the opportunities this person has had squandered, and they want to educate ME? And yet, despite their faults, my friend has never opened their mouth to judge another person and would quite honestly give anyone who needed it the only shirt he owned. I have learned many lessons from this friend over the years about how to love someone unconditionally, and how not to judge others based on superficial characteristics.
I try to never judge, I never hold in contempt. And I always strive to do what I can for anybody who needs it. I never forget who has helped me, what I’ve taken, borrowed, had to replace or repair. And that place in my soul is where I find my generosity. I am generous and forgiving to a fault; often it has caused me to open myself up to people who would seek to take advantage, but even so, I’m happy with who I am.
Of course, there can be moments in generosity when too much can be given. There comes a point when you have to say, “enough.” You must hold yourself first, put yourself foremost. Giving until you have nothing left accomplishes little good. Nobody appreciates a martyr except the martyr. Allowing yourself to be taken advantage of has no real merit. Sure, you’re selfless, but you’re willingly latching onto parasites, trying to turn them into flowers.
I was told once, in my less self-sufficient years, “I’m going to help you by not helping you. You must learn to stand on your own two feet.”
Left to drown? It seemed that way at the time. It was the best lesson ever offered to me. How to feel sorry for one’s self for exactly 2.5 seconds before realizing something better be done before I drown for real. That nobody will be my life jacket this time but me. Sink or swim. Prove your worth.
These days, with personal circumstances making it more and more impossible to get a leg up, I appreciate those lessons even more. I find myself more and more curious if people are judging ME, wondering if I am making bad decisions, not working hard enough, or if I am somehow less-than a perfect person for the way I go about my every day life. And yet, deep down I know that so many of us are going through hardship and dealing with difficult situations. I also know that no matter how down in the dumps I may consider myself, there are people in this very town that don’t even have a roof over their head, and for that reason, I try not to ever feel sorry for myself.
Those of us who have lived lives of privilege don’t understand how hard it is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. How simple tasks such as paying bills, keeping a job and feeding yourself a decent meal every day can seem too much to handle. We jab at them from behind our coffees and our manicures and our iPhones and wonder with disgust how they got to be so low. How they have no pride, no ethic, no personal accountability. We turn our homeless people into YouTube stars, watch with glee as they play dress up in rich people clothes, and then gloat when they come crashing down to the ground. We laugh and we sneer at those less fortunate, careful to always blame some bad decision of theirs for their current situation, so that we do not have to feel empathy.
And yet, so much of the time it’s the same people who can’t manage to keep a roof over their head, who are always messing up and making the bad choices, who seem to outpour the most creativity and change, who seem to alter people’s lives with a smile or a profound statement. It almost doesn’t seem fair. We should want to nurture these people, take their burden, so that they may continue to grace us with their gifts. Instead we scoff at them and judge them for their outward appearance and past mistakes instead of who they really are.
After all, that’s the one thing us materialistic lot can’t buy. Acceptance. We can buy everything else.
It’s hard to decide when helping someone is for their benefit, or for yours, so you can feel better about yourself. Would it help them more to walk away? Or is that just a selfish person’s way of justifying? I’ve been on both sides of the fence, giver and receiver, and the answer is still no clearer to me now.
I know for sure that there are no real answers for why people make the most basic of mistakes over and over again. Why we lose jobs, let go of people who love us, make decisions that will ruin our health or perhaps even kill us. Why we neglect those who love us, those who depend on us, like our animals or even our children. Why we stumble through life as if these thousands of years of evolution have taught us nothing.
We can be sad at these facts, and we can do any number of things in our personal lives to try and better situations and educate those who need it. There are many ways to be proactive in your community and turn things around for the better.
Sitting back and judging accomplishes very little.
The best we can do is to keep an open mind, remember that not everyone has had the advantages we’ve had, and strive to offer our unconditional love, support and assistance for as long as it remains helpful. That is all any of us can do. For me, Gatsby’s green light is empathy, and I reach for it every day.