The news doesn’t seem to get any better and I expose myself to it daily in search of inspiration for my writing. While physical empaths are people that absorb the physical symptoms of others, I absorb the anguish of others and the unfairness in their lives, and that transference has a direct impact on my mood and mental health.
Stories such as the shooting of the two teenagers by their father last week in Sydney and articles and fiction I’ve been reading about the victims of our under-serviced mental health system can turn a promising day into a bad one.
And then, occasionally, a post like this one from Victoria.com catches my eye. I shared it last week on my FB page because I recognised it as an important reminder not to wish our lives away or forget to make the most of every opportunity. Many of us are guilty of packing so much into our lives that we find ourselves looking ahead all of the time rather than relishing every precious moment. In my case, I waste far too many hours brooding about the problems that I can’t change in the world. I consume the pain of others and carry it around with me. It diffuses through my pores and weighs me down until the shame of my privilege feels like survivor’s guilt.
And seriously, what right do I have to pretend to know anything about the suffering of the mother of those teenagers?
At one point during the lunch I described in my last post – as I was sinking the final mouthful of perfectly-cooked lemon meringue tart into my mouth whilst bemoaning the migrant crisis – one of the other guests pointed out to me the danger and futility of absorbing everyone else’s pain. The point he was trying to make, I believe, was that life is too short to waste beating ourselves up about things we cannot change. We have one journey and we need to make it a good one.
Which is selfish, right? And for a second, the serial (wannabe) do-gooder in me, reared up defensively like a snake on behalf of all of those suffering right now in the world, while I digested the perfect steak with my perfect friends. I wanted to remind him that we should all be doing more. I wanted the eight of us to get up the following morning and enlist in a world aid association or train to become mental health nurses.
But instead, I bit my tongue – because, as painful as it was to admit, I knew that he had a point.
My own time is running out. Each of us has an internal timer, and none of us knows when it will stop. And there is another part of me – that I secretly despise – that wants to put myself first now as illness begins to ravage people my age to remind me of my mortality. Life is short – indeed, it is getting worryingly shorter. We get one bite at the cherry. And while we can be mindful of the plight of others and lend our support in whatever small ways we can, we have to make the most of this, our one opportunity at living.
While I thought about those boys and their parents in Thailand, I recognised that they needed something greater than my compassion – whether that was a God or the wonderful people that risked their own lives to save them. We can’t fix everything.
I have been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity of a good life. No road is free of dips and I have been forced to fix some potholes along the way, yet I have never looked at the smooth tarmac of others and felt resentment. To use a monetary term, we live within our means, with the hand we are given.
How many times have you been shocked to hear someone who has been seriously ill or faced a tragedy admit that they are glad it happened? Because it made them recalibrate and appreciate life for what it is – in all its beauty, brevity and fragility. Those people are our inspiration, and we owe it to them to live our lives to the full.