Caring For Ourselves By Tending To The World
--Randall Amster
4 minute read
Nov 16, 2020

[In a recent Pod, I was reminded of this experience and this reflection came up for me. If ever there was a time to deeply consider how we balance the self with all else, it's right now!]

A few years ago I was on a road trip to visit old friends in New York. Entering the highway, I saw smoke out of the corner of my eye, immediately identifying the source as a vehicle that had slipped off the other side of the road. Instinctively, I pulled over and ran across four lanes of traffic, leaving my own car running with the door open. Arriving at the scene, the other car had rolled over and two men were trapped in it, and the vehicle was smoldering. Another motorist had stopped to help, and then another. Without many words between us, we managed to pry the window out of the passenger door, helping the large man on that side escape through the narrow opening; glass and twisted metal had cut him all over, and the blood soaked onto our clothes as well. The driver was in a worse situation, with the wheel pinning him and no way to pull him out. The car kept smoldering, but we stayed to talk with him until the EMTs arrived. When they did, along with the police, the few of us who had stopped to help were swiftly pushed back and told to go on our way. I returned to my car still idling on the opposite shoulder, a police officer scowling at me for "parking" there. I then drove to the rest area a few miles ahead, cleaning up in the restroom and changing my clothes, which had been torn and stained from the whole episode. I never found out the cause or what happened to the injured driver.

I haven't thought much about this incident since then, but doing so now makes me realize a few things. For one, I might not always have the healthiest boundaries; but then again, I wouldn't really call it unhealthy to help with a problem that just happens to land on your doorstep for some reason. For another, I don't often share stories like this, being conscious of the aggrandizing tendencies of "virtue signaling" that sometimes dominate the social media landscape (as in: "look what I did-made-ate-etc.!"). And lastly, I feel like these sorts of moments are a kind of cosmic debit against all of the privileges and opportunities I've been granted in life -- in other words, being drawn toward crises isn't about charity or empathy; it's a balancing point for self-realization.

Being aware of these implications has never really been my strong suit; I've gotten better over the years, but it's still a work in progress. This isn’t for lack of self-actualization, but more so due to an inner compass that draws me toward challenges. If there are two ways to do something, I usually choose the harder path; if something can be done manually rather than by automation, I usually opt for the former. Even if there's a potential safety risk involved, my impulse usually is to run toward the problem. Despite being drawn by crisis, however, I'm generally a conflict-averse person in most contexts. So I guess we all wind up choosing our own kryptonite -- which (if you remember the Superman stories) was supposedly about something that makes us vulnerable, but in reality is what makes us human.

In this light, we come to appreciate how self-care requires dissolution on some level; our own actualization is only possible in a real sense when we tend to the people and larger world around us. Compassion may be essential because it's the right thing to do for others, but it's also a fundamental way to experience and fulfill our own humanity as well. Martin Luther King Jr. described this as a "single garment of destiny" in which our journeys are inherently intertwined, where none can ascend unless all have a chance to do so. This is supposed to be hard work, and there are no shortcuts. As Henry Beston once wrote, "a human being protected from all normal and natural hardship simply is not alive." The emerging gilded age of push-button services and on-demand everything may take from us this basic right of virtuous struggle -- until its gathering effects destabilize our world into perpetual chaos. It seems preferable to take small doses of this upon ourselves now, equitably, rather than avoiding all discomforts until it becomes too late.

Posted by Randall Amster on Nov 16, 2020

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