‘He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.’ — John 12:25-26
It’s so easy to lose focus. When I spend too much time inside my own head, thinking about me and my desires, problems, and concerns, I get depressed. I get anxious and stressed out. I get distracted and off-kilter.
I just listened to a TED talk by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal. Among many other fascinating things, she mentions in her talk an interesting discovery about stress and compassion, noting a study that links stressful life experiences to early death (unsurprisingly). The twist is that, as she puts it, “people who spent time caring for others [helping family members, friends, community members] showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. Zero. Caring created resilience.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard that caring for others instead of focusing on myself is good for me and a possible remedy for stress and anxiety. Father Evan Armatas, host of the weekly call-in show “Orthodoxy Live” on Ancient Faith Radio, once addressed anxiety during his program. He said that people who suffer with anxiety should make time to help others; he gave the example of serving in a homeless shelter, but the advice can apply to any kind of service. I’ve been trying to implement this in my life lately by focusing on what I can do to serve my husband and our marriage instead of thinking about what I should do to serve myself.
And I’m happier. When I stop thinking about me all the time and focus more on caring for other people in my life, I end up happier and more at peace than when I’m only thinking about myself.
It’s one of those things that seems counterintuitive at first (if I want to be happy, shouldn’t I focus my time and energy on me?), but, at the heart of things, makes perfect sense.
I believe our technology-driven world makes it easy to tend towards narcissism and, in turn, depression. There’s plenty of discussion out there about the possibility that social networking sites like Facebook make us depressed. I can only speak anecdotally, but I have noticed that the more time I spend online, looking in on the lives of others, the more dissatisfied I start to feel with my own life. The dissatisfaction ranges from vain concern over my appearance (I’m not as thin/tall/pretty as her) to worry over the health and progress of my relationships or personal goals (Maybe their marriage is stronger than mine; Maybe that friend from undergrad is smarter and harder working than me because she’s already got a master’s degree).
Of course, I know that most people—including me—put a brave face on their online personas. Most people aren’t going to air their dirty laundry in a Facebook status or confess their deep insecurities via Twitter. Yet even though I know that, I still find it so easy to fall into the belief that everyone else is doing better than I am, in one way or another. And this certainly makes sense: the more time we spend comparing ourselves to others, the more we’re going to focus on what we lack rather than what we have.
Interestingly, I never worry about whether someone’s prayer life or relationship with God is better than mine. The more I think about myself and compare myself to others, the more trivial my concerns become. Perhaps this is one of the devil’s tactics for tripping us up; if he can distract us with thoughts about things that are less important, we’ll have less time and energy to focus on what truly matters.
The reality is that twenty or fifty or a hundred years from now, no one’s going to remember (or care) exactly what we said, but they’ll remember if we spoke with kindness and love. No one’s going to remember if we looked perfect in every Facebook photo, but they’ll remember if we acted gracefully and selflessly. In the end, no one’s really going to remember whether or not we ever got published, or became a CEO, or traveled the world. We are less likely to be remembered for everything we do, and more likely to be remembered for how we live and what we use our lives to accomplish. And it’s not just about how we’re going to be remembered; it’s also about what we’ll have to show for this gift of life we’ve been given when we someday stand before God. Above all, in the end, it’s about becoming the person God wants us to be, rather than the person we think we should be.
And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?’ — Mark 8:34-36