Being a woman means caring too much.
Too much about what’s going to happen to you and the people you love.
Too much about all the crap going on in the world today, and whether it will even be around for your kids’ kids.
Too much about violence, and sexism, and abuse, and hate crimes.
So you turn off the TV, or stop clicking on news stories, and try to breathe. You remind yourself that everything is okay. You’re fed and clothed and still have health insurance. The world is a good place, as long you keep your eyes narrowly focused on the one bright spot in front of you.
But your mind can’t stop caring.
In the absence of bigger things to worry about, you worry about the small things.
You worry about what that person said to you, and whether they meant it nicely or secretly intended something mean.
You worry about the double chin you seem to have in photos, and the wrinkles that burst out when you smile, and those stretch marks on your hips that will never go away.
You worry about whether those cushions match the sofa, and what people will think of your house when they drop by, and whether you’re expected to plant flowers in your yard even though you always kill them.
Worries come in all shapes and sizes. Big fears can plow you down, like a rhinoceros sitting on your chest, or you can be stung to death by a million incessant flying concerns.
You’re going to be worrying for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.
No matter what you do.
Because there’s always one more thing to worry about. Your baby’s high school graduation. Your dad’s visit to the specialist. Your best friend’s heartbreak.
Which is why I was fascinated to hear a talk on the practice of “compassionate detachment.”
Compassionate detachment is a lifeline for those of us who’ll find someone else to worry over if we don’t have enough to worry about in our own lives.
You see, those of us who are savers—we want to save everyone, from our kids to our friends to that little old lady shuffling through a crowded shop aisle in a walker—hate pain.
Pain is the main obstacle to happiness in this lifetime. If only everyone we know were happy, we’d finally be able to relax. We’d allow ourselves to be happy, like the moms who wait until everyone is served before they sit down to eat.
But as long as someone somewhere is experiencing pain, we’re on it.
We’re on pain duty. We’re there to witness their suffering. We’ll take on their worries for them. We’ll spend our free time figuring out their situation and fixing it for them. Even if they don’t want us to.
Savers often end up in saving professions, such as nursing, social work, eldercare, counseling or (cough cough) self-help.
There’s so much pain, and so much need, everywhere we look, that it all gets overwhelming. Burnout is a very real problem. You can’t feel everyone else’s pain and stay sane.
That’s where compassionate detachment comes in.
Feeling compassion is a wonderful thing. It’s what connects us to the humanity in others. We all suffer. None of us will make it through this life alive.
But taking on the suffering of others doesn’t work. You can’t suffer for other people.
And that’s why you need detachment.
Detachment means stepping back and lovingly allowing other people to follow their own path. You are not responsible for anyone else. Even if other people make choices that cause them pain, that is their right. Your only role is to be present for them with love.
How could you possibly remain detached from those you love? You want them to be healthy and happy! You want to help them any way you can! Even if that means living their lives for them.
Live other people’s lives for them, and you’re excused from figuring out the mess that’s your own.
Anne Lamott knows this. Her 2017 book Hallelujah Anyway casts a loving light on the struggle to be compassionately detached when you’re an admitted control freak who knows what’s best for everyone.
The problem with detachment is that it makes us responsible. We have to admit we can’t fix everything. We can’t fix other people. We can’t fix this big fat mess of a world. We’ve got bigger fish to fry: sorting out the complicated, confused life of that person staring back at us in the mirror.
In that way, detachment is the most loving thing you can do.
It keeps you firmly in the space of agenda-free compassion. It stops you from judging other people’s lives. It reminds you that you don’t know how things are going to turn out in the end. Heck, you don’t even know what’s best for yourself half the time.
Save the world … or love it with all the compassionate detachment you can muster?