Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander. -Sign in the Holocaust Museum, Washington DC
I’ve posted this every January for the past 5 years. It’s a rather long post, but I believe it’s an important one and, by writing it and re-writing it once a year, I try to impress upon others how helping others heals your own soul in a way that nothing else can. So if you’re bored, lonely, heartbroken, tired or just restless and feel as if the whole world has someone and you don’t, do some research to see the many causes and organizations who can use your help this year. It will help you feel grateful and being of use to others is to heal faster. As I always say, I never ask my readers or clients to do anything I haven’t done or don’t do, and I know this is a soul-filling opportunity when you extend your hand to others who need it.
As 2019 dawns, it is apparent that no matter where you live or what you believe in, we have work to do and I believe that part of your healing process must include volunteer work and commitment to others.
But even if you don’t want to be involved in major happenings or formal organizations, there is probably someone in your own life who could use some help and encouragement. Just saying, “It will be okay.” or being active in a group and encouraging others, even if it’s to say, “I feel very similar to how you feel.” it’s important to let others know they are not alone and others get where they are. One of the most important part of my initial healing was that there were terms for the way I was feeling (fear of abandonment, grief, unresolved loss) and if there were words for it then others had it too and if others had it too maybe there was a way out. And there was. Sometimes just HEARING that someone identifies with you can mean so much. Can make you feel so less alone.
I am a fairly active participant in charities, causes and rescue organizations. As a former DV victim, I’ve always worked in the area of Domestic Violence and have the GPYB scholarship program and book matching programs for DV shelters (If you don’t know what that is, if you send a book to a DV shelter or organization I match it for either that organization or another of your choosing). I’ve done legal pro bono work for DV victims, for Hurricane Katrina victims, Hurricane Sandy, immigration and others.
The New York State Bar has a program called Empire State Counsel where it recognizes attorneys who do over a certain amount of pro bono hours each year. I was an honoree a few years in a row. I love pro bono work and if you go to work on behalf of a pro bono client, the judges always thank you for your service even if they’re not finding in your client’s favor. I did a criminal appeal in front of a panel of judges and they ruled against my client but thanked me for my service.
But I would have done it even if there were no such program. To those who have been given much, much is expected and I believe that if you are making large sums of money, it’s not only imperative to donate a lot of that money but to donate time and effort. Those two things are more important to the recipients of your volunteer work but are also more important to YOU. The most important aspect of volunteer work is helping others but the benefits to you are ten fold, especially when there is nothing in it for you. Not even an honorary title or a nod in your direction from anyone. It’s probably MOST rewarding when only you know you’ve done a small favor to someone who can never do anything for you.
We have walked for the National Brain Tumor Society every year even though I knew nothing about brain cancer before Michael got sick and the money raised is for others. Losing Michael was the most horrific experience of my life and I work every year for cancer organizations, especially the NBTS, to raise awareness and research money for a cancer that has no cure and affects so many children. Michael’s main concern (as those of you who have read Rope Burns know), was the children. To him, children belong out playing and being kids, not spending time in a radiation unit. When he was in treatment, even though he, himself, was dying, he tried to spend time with the kids and comforting others, many of whom had a much better prognosis than he did.
As many of you who have read my annual NBTS fundraiser page know, Michael once comforted a very young mother of 5 who was undergoing brain surgery to remove a small tumor and then receive treatment. She was so scared and Michael told her he had surgery (he only had it for a biopsy, the tumors were too pervasive to try to remove any) and it would be fine. He never told me about her but I met her one day in the radiation unit and she told me, “God bless your husband, he helped me so much.” I asked him about her and he said, “She’s 35 and has five small children. They can’t lose her. She needed the surgery and was afraid so I told her I had it and it would be fine.” (even though he had no recollection of the biopsy surgey and the decision to do it was made when he was in a medically induced coma). He said to me, “Those kids can’t lose their mom. They just can’t.” Outwardly I was smiling and patting his hand and saying, “I know honey, don’t worry, she’ll be okay, they won’t lose her.” but inwardly I was screaming, “I CAN’T LOSE YOU. YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE FINE!” I smiled at him, held back my tears, the screaming in my soul and the sound of my heart breaking into a million pieces and was just so grateful to be with such a precious soul for as long as I was. To know such a loving man and to know he loved me the most in his whole life is a honor and on the days I wish he was here, it’s hard to be grateful for that, but when I work with cancer organizations, it helps me to help others because that is what he wanted. The video I made about Michael’s huge heart and concern for children with cancer is HERE.
Even when he was well and we were riding our Harleys, we did at least one cancer fundraiser run a year. He always did the Halloween one where the bikers all dressed up but that was too cold for me to be riding by then, but he didn’t miss it. We rode many a charity run in the rain or in bad weather, but he never complained. Not when he was well and not when he was sick. And riding a Harley is fun no matter when you’re doing it, so I tried to stay in that frame of mind as that was the frame of mind he was always in.
He never once thought of himself. He said, “I’ve lived a good life, I want the kids to be kids and for the young parents to see their children grow.” He taught me so much in those months and even on my most exhausting days, when I was worn down, the doctors told me it wasn’t really necessary to bring him 5 days for treatments, there was no way I wouldn’t. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even about him except that he found comfort in comforting others who had much better chances than he did.
He showed me what true love was when I would come to him in the morning with his pills and his breakfast and I would say, “Good morning honey, how are you?” and he would say, even in his raspiest voice on his hardest days, “Good, how are you?” He never failed to be kind and caring toward his caregivers. I can honestly say that from the time of his seizure to the time of his death 11 months later, I never once saw him say a cross word to anyone. I never saw him feel sorry for himself either. I once saw a far away look in his eyes and I said, “Are you okay, honey, is there something you want?” and he said very soft and low, “Yes, I want to get better.” For a man who was so independent and so strong and believed that as the head of the family his needs came last, it was the most he ever said about his illness or feeling sorry for himself. Most days his thoughts were being grateful for his family and his caregivers. He was always in a good mood and tried to stay in good spirits.
The night before he slipped into a coma, I did, as I did every night, give him his medication, kiss him on his forehead, squeeze his hand, and say, “I love you honey.” and he squeezed back even though it was soft and said, “I love you too.” Those would be the last words he ever spoke. But I sat by his side for the next two and half days holding his hand and hoping for a squeeze back, that never came. But I know he knew I was there and right before he passed he opened his eyes and held my gaze until he was gone. He taught me so much about what love is and should be and my greatest gift in life was seeing a dying man continue to give to those he loved as he had when he was a big, brawny tough guy. Nothing took his sweet charm from him and if he could do that, then I can work for the NBTS every year so that other families, especially those with children affected by brain cancer, can one day celebrate in a cure or better treatment options.
To me, doing volunteer work is one of the ways to stay grateful and to get out and to feel as if you are doing something, that you matter to someone and that your efforts in the world make a difference. And I encourage people to stay involved in socio-economic and political discourse even if it seems your viewpoint is going against the grain of popular opinion because many times popular opinion is just wacky. I encourage people to find their voice and use their voice. If you commit to something outside yourself with no expectation of repayment, you touch the life of someone else but the real gift is to you.
Since I was 12, I have always been involved in political, social and moral causes. My parents went a completely crazy when I marched for civil rights as a 12 year old (while I was sleeping, they went into my room to retrieve the band with the African colors that someone had given me. I fished it out of the garbage the next day and then they cut it in half). They went even crazier when I marched for women’s rights as a 14 year old and I threatened to burn my bra. These were not acts of a rebellious teenager, but the acts of someone who felt the injustices deeply, who had felt like an outcast all of her life and tended to identify with these causes on a personal level.
From the age of 12 through my late twenties, I was actively involved in these causes. While this was a good thing, it also worked as another distraction from my deep inner pain.
And worked to help me DENY my own life. I worked on a DV hotline and sold holiday goods for a DV shelter while being in an abusive marriage. Some people said, later on, that maybe I was looking for help but I honestly think I was just in complete denial.
But when my marriage ended in 1987 and I had to come face to face with the fact that I was a complete and utter mess, I had to step away from the world’s stage and take care of me and my kids.
I went inward and worked out the garbage and worked in the good stuff. I did not vote in the 1988 election or any of the local elections in 88, 89, 90 or 91. I stopped reading newspapers, I stopped watching TV. I missed entire runs of shows that made television history. My mission in those years was to get my own house in order. It was to do my inner work, do my affirmative work and go to work, therapy and support groups and take care of my kids. That was my life. Period.
I was waging a war against my past while trying to build a nice present and a successful future. It took up all my time and energy. I was like a person with a toothache. My pain was all I could think about.
At the end of 1991, I started to tune back into the political, moral and social issues of the day. But I had to be careful not to get so involved with them I ignored my own stuff (as I had done before) and not to replace taking care of me with taking care of other people. I had to balance it and be vigilant about my altruism versus my codependency. It is sometimes quite the balancing act.
I slowly put the activism back in my life knowing that I had a responsibility to the world community. I learned to balance that with the responsibility I owed to myself and my kids.
Gandhi said to be the change you want to see in the world and that is where I had started. I tended to my own back yard to be sure it was healthy and happy and whole. I WAS the change I wanted to see in my life.
But it didn’t end there. I had a responsibility to the world, to care about things that were wrong and to lend my voice and my action to it. I didn’t wait until I was fully healed, as that would be years and years, but I learned to balance my activism and charitable work with my personal journey. It absolutely HAS to be that way.
We also have a duty to pass our moral fiber onto our children. I grew up in the Bronx. I lived in an area where I had exposure and friends of every ethnic and religious background. I was treated well by everyone outside my family. People outside my house made me feel welcome and that I belonged (unlike the people inside my house). I felt a sense of duty to civil rights and to eradicating any type of prejudice from my life.
My parents could be bigots and racists (they tended to vocalize it only when other bigots and racists were around.). I railed against that at the age of 12. I marched, as the only small blonde girl, in a civil rights march. It was emotional and positive and I loved it.
As I was leaving, one man handed me a leather wrist band with the African colors on it. When I wore it home, my parents threw it in the garbage. At night, when everyone was asleep, I snuck outside and retrieved it from the garbage pail. The next day they cut it up.
But I didn’t stop my work. I went to a Baptist church and sang and gave my small allowance money to their church. One Sunday I ditched my Catholic service for the Baptist service and my parents were livid. Afraid to go home, I went to my friend’s house to wait for her to change her Sunday clothes. Her elderly grandfather was sitting in the living room listening to music that touched my heart. I asked him what it was and he said it was Robert Johnson. He told me about Robert Johnson and the blues and played a few more records for me. They were old and scratched 78s but he was very careful with them. By the time my friend was ready, I didn’t want to leave and I returned again and again to learn about the blues and listen to Robert Johnson.
A little white girl and an old black man forged a friendship around the blues. I’ve never forgotten it and I remain a blues fan to this day.
When I was 15 I was invited to my first Seder and told about the history of the Hebrews that was not taught in my school or church. I was riveted by the stories which were never taught anywhere where I normally learned things.
I learned to cook Italian food from a woman who barely spoke English but told me, in halting English, about World War II in Sicily. I learned to cook Spanish dishes from a friend whose mother shared with me the appalling conditions she fled in El Salvador.
In each house I shared a little of what I knew though I felt that, compared to them, it wasn’t much.
In each house I was warmly welcomed and given some knowledge of a culture I would not have otherwise known.
How could I hate anyone because of their ethnic background or color or religion when to hate them would be to cut myself off from what they had to offer and to cut them off from what I had to offer?
My boys, on the other hand, were raised in a small town in Massachusetts where there were not a lot of minorities. I worked in the technology field in central Massachusetts and the small towns that surrounded the tech hubs were mostly upscale and mostly white. Although we visited New York a lot, it’s not the same as growing up with diversity. I spent their childhoods preaching acceptance and non-racist, non-sexist, non-bigoted views. It was my duty. I could not ignore that sexism, racism and bigotry exists in the world even though they didn’t encounter very much in very liberal central Massachusetts and certainly were not the target of any of it. But I wanted them to know it was wrong.
I also preached kindness to animals and the importance of charitable works.
Care about others. Care about the less fortunate. Share what you have when you can. Care about what happens in the world. Vote. Stay on top of politics. It was my responsibility as a parent to at least try to make them care.
I taught them not to appropriate other cultures without a sense of obligation to that culture. I said do not listen to the music, copy the styles or the slang of others without a sense of gratitude for that and a duty to give back.
I received so much from other cultures by enjoying the music, the food, the style, the way of talking, dancing, etc etc. It is not JUST about TAKING from other cultures. I try not to politicize my viewpoints though I did use Twitter as a bit of a bully pulpit this fall but in a normal, non-election cycle most of my tweets are apolitical and the ones that are political are about the abuse, neglect and/or murder of women, children or animals. But when the abuse, neglect or murders of women, children and animals stop, I will promise to never mention it again.
But as far as my clients and readers go, I don’t care what organizations you volunteer for or what political group you donate money to or what church you go to. Just have some kind of work that is benefiting the world. Some act of selfless kindness. Altruism is a part of every healthy and functioning individual.
The GPYP/GPYB work started as completely voluntary when I was working during the day as a highly paid lawyer. It has never been about the money or becoming a well-known author or having my own page in Wikipedia. It started out strictly as a way to be a lawyer during the day but continue doing my part to help others in pain when the time I had to devote to many causes was very limited. Had I not started this with a social conscience and begged off because I traveled frequently and worked very long hours 7 days a week as an attorney, this blog would have never started. Would it have been missed? Probably not. But something in me kept tugging to continue to share my story and to try to help others who were trying to rebuild their lives. I started it as a generic motivational program but most of my seminar attendees (where this all started) were going through a divorce or breakup and eventually the focus shifted almost entirely to breakup recovery and healing.
Although I now count on some of this as an income stream, doing this has never been about the money. I could be making well over 6 figures as a lawyer, but I’m well under 6 figures as a counselor and most of my speaking and commentary is done free of charge. I still donate books to DV shelters and women’s organizations though not as many as I’d like or as often as I could when I made a huge salary.
This is and always has been primarily about letting others know I’ve been where you’ve been and you can get out. There’s really no other reason for me to do this. It’s always been hard work and takes a lot of time and effort.
I do have a Masters degree and a J.D. from a top 10 law school. Instead of this, I could have a nice, comfortable life, but I feel I cannot keep my message to myself. And I must not. I escaped pain and unhappiness and a destructive lifestyle. I became successful in life and in love. I need to tell others how I did it and coach them to do it too.
If you are following a program or reading a book that does NOT recommend caring about others, passing it on, paying it forward or caring about the world once you have started to make headway, something is terribly wrong with your program.
We must give to others as we have been given.
If you are reading this, you have been given something and I encourage you to pass some of what you have learned to others even if you just encourage one person to do the “I will be okay no matter what” affirmation several times a day. If someone is hurting, no matter where the hurt is coming from, encouraging them to say that several times a day is giving back and helping someone who needs the encouragement.
It IS important and vital we do our work FIRST. If we are giant, gaping holes it is hard to be of use to anyone else. We MUST go inward and we must do the work of working out the garbage of the past. At the same time we need to affirm and visualize our positive future and act as if we are already there. It IS a three prong process: emotional, cognitive and behavioral. You must do work on all three levels. If anyone tells you otherwise, that is nonsense.
As you do your work stay cognizant of the fact that as you get better, you have a duty to do some good in the world. In addition to GPYP I belong to several charitiable organizations, stay involved in the political process and stay active on the world’s issues to NOT be a bystander.
Once you start to feel better in your own skin, you owe it to the world to get out there and make a positive difference.
Do NOT be a victim.
Do NOT be a perpetrator.
But most importantly, do NOT be a bystander.
Copyright © Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author
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