November 18

Falling Leaves

November 18, 2007

Personal Growth

A man — let’s call him George — called me to describe the unbearable pressure he was feeling from his family. They were a “tight-knit family,” he said. They had always “been close,” and now they were “relying on him to help them” with more and more things. His mother was sick and constantly needing his help to take her to the doctor, to come over and fix things around the house, to spend time with him on the phone, and so on. His father called to complain to George that his wife — George’s mother — was always miserable and never stopped complaining about pretty much everything.

George’s brother was out of work and called to ask for money. His brother said he was too busy and didn’t have the gas money to go and help his mother out with her many needs. The list of demands on George was piling up to the point that George was about to go crazy and to top it all off, his wife was becoming irritated that he was spending so much time with his mother, father, brothers, and some others in the family who also required his time and attention. He wanted to know what he could do. He felt trapped.

I get a great number of emails and phone calls from people who believe they are in impossible situations: with their spouses, their children, their parents, and other people in their lives. They feel trapped: No matter what they do, they disappoint the people who present them with lists of demands that are never fully satisfied. It’s a terribly frustrating way to live for everyone.

Let me share with you — as I did with George — an experience I once had with a couple of my children when they were young. We were beginning to walk outside in our backyard in the fall, as the leaves were well into the process of falling. Our house is surrounded by hardwoods, so when the winds blew, quite a number of leaves would fall with each gust. In an effort to provide them a moment of novelty, which children usually enjoy — and keeping in mind that my sense of humor is considered by some to be a bit bizarre — I suddenly gasped and said, “Oh no, the leaves are falling.”

The children looked at me with alarm, and I said, “What shall we do?”

With eyes wide, they shrugged their little shoulders, counting on me for the answer to this terrible situation.

So I ran to a nearby tree with branches that extended low to the ground, and I hastily began to gather up leaves on the grass, which I then skewered to the exposed tiny branches, using each branch like a spear. The children were relieved that there was something they could do in this emergency, and they gathered around me to help solve this problem. We worked as hard as we could, but each time the wind blew, more leaves fell.

When a heavy gust would blow, I would sometimes look around and say, “Oh no! What can we do? There are so many leaves! We’re falling behind.” And in those moments, a look of genuine panic and heavy concern would cloud the eyes and furrow the brows of those two little children.

I know, what a mean father, but I didn’t allow that childhood trauma to continue for long. After a few minutes of skewering leaves on branches, I laughed and said, “I’m just kidding.” I pointed to all the leaves on all the trees and said, “All the leaves will fall. They’re supposed to fall. And then we’ll rake them up into a big pile and throw you into them.” As I said this, I raked a pile of leaves together with my arms and put both of them into the pile, laughing. And then we had a leaf fight, throwing leaves at each other, having a great time playing with the leaves.

The instant those two children realized that they had no responsibility for gathering up the leaves and putting them back on the branches, their heavy emotional burden disappeared. In a single moment, they were transformed from a state of fear to joy, and the same transformation is available to all of us as adults — any time we want it.

We are not responsible for putting the leaves back on other people’s trees. We are not responsible for other people’s happiness. We are responsible only to do whatever we can do, and to make the best choices we can make in any given moment, and if someone else isn’t happy with those choices, that is their problem — that is their leaf on the ground — not ours.

When we leave someone else’s leaf on the ground, it’s not a reflection of our not caring about them. It’s simply a recognition that we cannot be responsible for other people. In the end, I am responsible for my happiness. You are responsible for yours. I am responsible to love you as well as I can, but you are still responsible for your happiness, and the moment I take responsibility for your happiness, you become less of a human being. You become less capable of being happy.

People may offer you responsibility for their happiness, but that doesn’t obligate you to take it. They may offer you the opportunity to pick up their leaves and pin them on their branches, but you do not have to take advantage of the offer. 

Make the best choices you can instead and enjoy a walk in your own backyard.

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