“How much is too much when it comes to giving to others? What boundaries should we draw and what should we be willing to put up with?” One of our members raised this very important question last night, one that is especially relevant to women everywhere.
As we progress through the Gita, we are beginning to tackle difficult issues. Our discussions are getting longer and more intense, and we are struggling to truly understand and implement the disciplines needed to get to our goal. All week we have been practicing equanimity in the face of life’s daily ups and downs, doing our best to keep our cool and stay even-keeled in the face of happiness and sorrow. This is definitely a herculean task that will take daily conscious effort to accomplish.
The interesting thing about progress is that we only understand our challenges when we begin the journey forward. Until then, it seems like there is a clear and obvious path that we have simply chosen not to take. Once we do, we realize that there are many obstacles, some obvious and some not so obvious, that make the journey difficult and that perhaps kept us from taking that first step for so long.
For the past few weeks, in our efforts to stay calm in the face of every circumstance, we are realizing that our roles demand us to give constantly and that sometimes the constant giving becomes a burden that drains our equanimity. In other words, we don’t have the luxury of being solo travelers who can choose how we face circumstances, we are surrounded by family, friends, acquaintances who affect our lives and our peace of mind on a daily basis. As daughters, wives, mothers and friends, we give and give. So how much is too much?
Some of us argued last night that we need to set boundaries and stick to them, giving only as much as we can without affecting our own happiness. Others insisted that we need to stretch those boundaries, allowing those who make demands on us to continue doing so, and learning to give generously rather than resentfully.
I brought up the question of physical and verbal abuse, and where one draws the line in those circumstances. As a survivor of both, I spent many years considering myself a victim. It was quite a shock to be told by a wise teacher that I had chosen my circumstances and that I was a willing participant. Accustomed to self-pity and sympathy regarding those years, I refused to believe that I was anything but an unwilling recipient. But as my teacher explained it, we choose our circumstances not just by creating them, but just as much by choosing to either stay in them, change them, or leave them.
After calming down and thinking about what he said, I began to see the sense in his argument. From the very beginning, even as a teenager, I had the power to leave, to say I was worth more, to insist on respect and dignity. My father always told me that under no circumstances should I put up with abuse. Yet I stayed for twelve long and torturous years, covering up, making excuses, clinging to the desire to have a successful marriage, afraid of what I might have to face if I broke free. It was only after I had grown from a naïve codependent teenager to an educated and aware young woman that I finally had the courage to choose a different circumstance. So yes, it was true. It was I who had made the choice both times, to stay, to endure, and finally to go.
Whatever it is that motivates us to stay in unhappy situations, whether it is fear, desire, complacency, attachment or habit, unless we are literally imprisoned, then we have to accept that we are making a conscious choice. For those of us who are not ready to leave, to break relationships or brave social stigma, there is still a choice. We can choose not to accept the insults or pressure or pain being meted out by those around us. It is only ours, according to the sages, if we accept it. If we refuse it, it goes back to the giver, rendered useless by our rejection. This seems to me easier said than done. I think it’s actually easier to walk away than to refuse pain or to stop giving too much when you are within a relationship that inflicts that pressure endlessly. What we are learning each week is that ultimately we are all part of that same eternal Atma. If we continue to practice seeing that common thread and turning inward rather than looking outside for happiness, for praise, for acceptance, and for love, then perhaps outside factors will cease to have such a strong impact.
So what is the solution? How do we keep progressing and maintaining equanimity while those around us make constant demands, often causing us pain? What is the line between being nice and sacrificing oneself in the quest to make others happy?
There are no easy answers here. I think this is a line each of us has to draw for ourselves, knowing at what point duty becomes misery, gauging whether our unhappiness is caused by being overly attached to the outcome, or whether keeping up appearances has become more important than retaining our spirit. I think that as we continue striving for balance, this struggle will become easier and we will see more clearly how far we can bend and when we are in danger of breaking.
Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons