I was recently on my first ever yoga retreat and, being a group that was interested in physical as well as mental and spiritual health, the dinner conversation one night went to supplements of all kinds. Probiotics, CQ 10, Magnesium (which stopped my not-so-little muscle spasm problem in its tracks), oregano oil, on and on. Somebody brought up Rescue Remedy as a little miracle cure for stress and anxiety. I went on their website and, as open as I am to natural medicine, I found it kind of unintentionally hilarious. It lists each ingredient and what it does. Here is a sample:
IMPATIENS: “For those who act and think quickly, and have no patience for what they see as the slowness of others….Teaches empathy and understanding of and patience with others. ” So, Impatiens seems to help with impatience, so easy to remember!
CHERRY PLUM: “For those who fear losing control of their thoughts and actions and doing things they know are bad for them or which they consider wrong.” Sounds good for would be serial killers.
CLEMATIS: “For those who find their lives unhappy and withdraw into fantasy worlds. They are ungrounded and indifferent to the details of everyday life. Teaches one to establish a bridge between the physical world and the world of ideas: may foster great creativity.” Perfect for the writing staff of Game of Thrones.
IF ONLY flowers could do this. And, hey, maybe they do for some people, because it’s a pretty popular supplement. But I couldn’t help but think about the brilliance of the name of this product. Rescue Remedy. Don’t we all want a rescue remedy? Yes, probably, but I think it’s possible that the ones among us who could use it the most are in fact guilty of trying to BE the rescue remedy for many of the loved ones in their lives. People, like some of us who have an over developed need to take on other’s sorrows and troubles, who want to be the rescue remedy for somebody else. Children, parents, spouses, friends. People who think they have all the answers, the magic solution to your problem, or even your friend’s problem.
Going back as far as my older daughter’s preschool, teachers would ask parents not to “rescue” their kids. If the kid forgot their lunch, let them starve. (Or, much more realistically at their warm and fuzzy school, sit with the teacher and share her lunch as well as bits from every other kid at the table. The kid would never eat as well again.) Later, on Back to School Nights in middle school, teachers would practically beg parents not to bring in forgotten homework assignments or to write excuse letters (we were up late at Grandpa’s birthday and poor darling was too exhausted to finish that book report that was assigned two weeks ago when we got home!) or, God forbid, actually DO their kid’s homework assignment with them. (Because WITH them and FOR them is a pretty slippery slope.) Teachers would talk about fairness with regards to judging all the kids together but also would try to appeal to our huge need to be “good” parents, to let our kids fail when the stakes were still pretty low, to let them understand the natural consequence of, say, not putting the all packed backpack by the front door before going to sleep. Because eventually that would translate to self regulating their own lives as they would, inevitably, lead in a closer than we could have imagined future.
I was okay at this. Notice I didn’t say great. I totally agreed with the message and tried my best not to be one of those parents who rescued her kids, but in honesty it’s only because I did so much prep work. When they were little I didn’t leave a lot up to them, I made sure everything was prepared the night before so it went like clockwork the next morning. I hear you laughing. Ok, as much like clockwork can be when you are dealing with two little girls with large but pretty much opposite personalities sometimes setting off to two schools or bus stops in completely different directions, a cranky old cat and a high spirited Golden Retriever. I now look back at that time and realize that I had such a need to be on top of it all, that I couldn’t afford to make mistakes. Which, neurotically, translated more to that my kids couldn’t afford to make mistakes because it would reflect poorly on me. My husband, a very involved and fully present father to our kids their whole lives, never, ever had these issues. I was WAY too involved, on an ego level, with my kids and what I perceived to be my job as their mother. I am not proud of this, but I admit it fully. Ok, I feel better now.
But, even taking away the ego stuff, it is hard not to try and fix people. I think of that amazing Coldplay song, “Fix You,” which, depending perhaps on your age or life situation or just your mood that day can seem like the most romantic song in the world or creepily stalkerish. But it is challenging not to try, just on a basic, human level, to do whatever you think might comfort, heal or at least help out a friend, or a co-worker, or even the guy at the car wash who is clearly having a very bad day, to make them feel better, even if it is just for a moment. I think we, as women, are particularly hard wired to “mother,” even if we are childless. And boy do we want to give advice. Wait, that might just be me.
For so long I had advice for everyone. I was the “good” listener who would show empathy, let the person speak, really lay out the issue without interrupting. And then, often without a moment of reflection I would start with, “Ok, this is what you need to do.” When I think back on this I cringe. This was modeled on the way my dad behaved with me, growing up and even beyond, and when I was younger I must admit it was reassuring. My father had a way of making these grand pronouncements, behaving as if what he was saying was just an obvious fact that he was helping me see, rather than what it really was, which was simply his opinion. Sometime around the time my kids were hitting elementary school I started to get the message that what was called for as a parent was to mirror the issue, to state it back to your kid and then let them figure out the best course of action. This was undoubtedly extremely good advice, and since then I have tried to do that more, not just with my kids but with my husband, my friends, anybody who comes across my path wanting some kind of direction or feedback.
I had come through the controlling wars, I had a year where almost every person close to me was going through a very hard time and I played a giant game of whack a mole, running hysterically from one crisis to the next, heroically trying to put out every fire. Until I started to lose my mind and arrived, in a crumpled ball, at the door of the yoga studio that so happened to be the physically closest to my house. All I noticed, at the beginning, was that for the 60 to 90 minutes that class lasted my brain took a break. All those irritating voices in my head with all of their SOLUTIONS? They got quiet. I was in pretty poor physical shape when I first got there and it was just so darn hard to get through those early classes that the sheer effort of it physically, and the challenge of it mentally, was like a meditation when I didn’t even think of it as meditation.
Nothing is as boring as someone else’s yoga or Crossfit or weight loss journey unless, possibly, you are on the same or similar path. And what might be even MORE tedious is hearing about someone else’s spiritual journey through meditation. So I am not going to do that to you, at least not today, lucky you. But, on a very practical level, I have come to realize that while you can’t rescue people you can’t even tell others not to rescue other people in an effort to rescue them from the crazy making of rescuing people. You still with me? Because what took longer for me to do, when trying to help a needy person in my life, was to not protest when she came up with what I thought was a bad plan. Because, you know, I totally know what is best for you. What is best for YOU is to realize you can’t control what your twelve year old son does. Taking away the laptop or the video games won’t work. Love and compassion is what you need. Look at me? I am giving you love and compassion and see how amazing you feel? I am going to MAKE you realize that this is ONLY way to handle your situation. SO your plan sucks. Except that maybe it doesn’t. Maybe at that moment the video games needed to go. In any case, I became a bit of a love and compassion fascist. A spiritual I-told-you-so person. You can hate me for a moment.
But, just recently, I had the opportunity to be on the receiving end of rescue, in the most healthy way possible. A person close to me had been going through a very difficult and sad time, harder than I had previously imagined. And I was sick about this, like, literally sick. My back had gone out twice, my digestion was off, at times I could feel my heart racing. I have lost too many friends and relatives to mental illness and addiction, and I include my mother in that list, who is still on this planet but I “lost” to alcohol induced dementia some time ago. So I am overly sensitive to this issue and was concerned for this close friend. I had a plan to spend a night a couple of hours from here in a coastal town where another old and close friend has a second home. We walked for hours on the sand, not talking that much (the surf mostly drowned out our voices) but, literally putting one foot in front of the other calmed my jangled nerves. Later on we had lunch (I, SO uncharacteristically barely ate) and I just laid it all out, all my fears, how and in what way I should get involved, etc. And you know what she did? She rescued me. She said pretty much NOTHING. But she sat, looking at me and listening intensely, moved by what I was telling her but not having a large emotional response herself, which, frankly, can kind of take a moment like this and move it into a different direction. She in no way tried to solve the problem. I am not sure if she actually said this, but the message I got from her was “I am sorry you have to go through this.” And that simple message, and the gift of just, well, unloading, was exactly what I needed. And now, a few weeks later, I am seeing that even more.
Ok, so maybe she didn’t actually rescue me, but, even better, she gave me a path to rescue myself. Rescue myself from my need to control and fix and even, for a moment, some of the worry. Just by her presence. When I occasionally give myself a birthday celebration I tell people, honestly, that I don’t want a gift, that “your presence is the present.” It’s a kind of simple pun that lots of people say but more and more I see it as being so true.
So my new thing? My new thing is to try and be that calm presence for a loved one in need, or maybe even that guy in the car wash, whoever. But, probably more importantly, to be that calm presence for myself.
If anyone out there has any short cuts, I would love to hear them. And Rescue Remedy didn’t work for me. But if a supplement comes out named Calm Presence, I might just have to try it.