For some reason, people tell me their problems. I avoid eye contact with people beside me on airplanes or in line at the dry cleaners because next thing I know, they are telling me about their awful spouses or their problems with work. I have found myself caught in conversations with complete strangers about the most personal of topics, like the time I was minding my own business at an Alabama football game and a woman proceeded to tell me all about her menstrual cycle, in gory detail. Completely unsolicited …
My friends used to unburden themselves to me like I was Dr. Phil or something. When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic audience for my friends’ complaints and worries, happy to dispense my sage wisdom while telling myself that I must have my shit together or else they wouldn’t be asking for my advice or trusting me with their deepest secrets. Not so much anymore. These days I’m too busy – and so are most of my friends – to engage in the sort of self-involved pity parties and pop psychology that I used to find so interesting.
Every now and then, I’ll end up in a conversation with a friend who wants to tell me about the wretched condition of their life …
“I’m so unhappy in my marriage”
“My business is failing”
“My husband doesn’t understand me”
“I shouldn’t have gotten married to him/her/at all”
“I don’t like the girl my son is dating”
And on and on and on.
I’m never sure if they want me to sympathize with them, offer them solutions or just let them whine. A few years ago, I would have been inclined to listen with empathy and then offer advice that I’d heard on Oprah but these days, I find myself wanting to tell them to shut the hell up and put on their big girl (or big boy) panties.
It seems to me that most of the time when people are dissatisfied with something in their lives, the real problem isn’t what they’re dissatisfied with … the real problem is that they are unwilling to take action or make a tough choice. So you’re not satisfied in your marriage? Then fix it. You don’t like where your career is headed? Then change it. Wish you hadn’t gotten married to him/her/at all? Too late, you did, so find a way to make it work.
Of course, it can be daunting to take the first step towards making changes that need to be made but you have to start somewhere, with some sort of action. I would rather do the wrong thing than do nothing and have a hard time understanding people who would rather wallow in misery than take action or make a choice. And the longer I work with people who have special needs, the more adamant in this opinion I become.
See, those of us who are “typical” have choices. People with special needs, in many cases don’t have choices. People with special needs learn to be happy with what they have because often, they have no other option. Like a woman in our day habilitation program for adults … I’ll call her Margaret (because there’s no one in my program for adults whose name is Margaret).
Margaret is older than me and has an intellectual disability. She has no family to speak of and lives in a group home. Margaret has anxiety over trying new things…new activities, new foods, new people, changes in routine cause her tremendous angst. Margaret doesn’t get to make many choices in her life…she has to roll with the punches life throws her even when she’d rather not. When we added yoga to our daily activities, we had to coax her to give it a try. I watched her fight off the anxiety and force herself to try something that was frightening to her. Margaret powers through things, even when they’re scary or not particularly appealing to her and she doesn’t complain.
A couple of weeks ago, we took the adults in The Connection on a field trip to our local farmer’s market. I was afraid Margaret might have a hard time on the trip, worrying about how we would get there or what time we would come back. When we walked into the market, I was standing beside her and when she cried, “Oh!” I thought she was upset. But when I turned to ask her what was wrong, I saw tears in her eyes and a wide smile of genuine pleasure on her face.
“Debra,” she said, “thank you for bringing us here. I haven’t been inside a grocery store in 15 years.”
Wow. Such a simple thing that I take for granted – no, that I complain about – brought Margaret such joy. As I watched her walk through the market, touching all the produce, I thought about all those times that I’ve complained about my problems, or listened to others complain about theirs, and I was ashamed.
I gave each adult $5.00 to buy something and was even more ashamed when Margaret asked me if I had enough money to buy sweet potatoes for everyone in her home … ashamed because Margaret was thinking about other people when I so often only think of myself. She started to get anxious about how she would be able to carry all the potatoes home with her, whether they would fit in the van, worried she might forget them but as I calmed her down and told her that we would make sure the potatoes went home with her, she grabbed my arm and said,
“Thank you for making me come today. I didn’t really want to but I’m so glad I did.”
I’ve had so many moments like this in the past six years … moments when I glimpse through the words or actions of people with special needs exactly how the rest of us ought to live.
I don’t get this right all the time but I’m trying so hard to remember it … that if there’s something in my life that isn’t working, I should fix it. If there’s something I’m doing wrong, I need to correct it. If there’s someone I’m hurting, I need to stop it. If there’s something I could be doing to make the world better for someone else, I should get busy.
Because I can … because I have choices … because I can complain about things I wish were different or I can choose to do something – anything – to make things different.