‘Too Busy’ Regrets

| by Linda George |

Sometimes, a person’s shame comes later in life when one has time to reflect and that is what has happened to me. Realizing shame for past behaviors seems a cruel twist. Too late to correct those mistakes, but mindful that you caused them. During my working years, I lived my life full of confidence in my passions and was driven to ‘be the best I could be.’

I routinely re-evaluated my performance at the end of each day to determine if I could have done things ‘better.’ As an elementary special education teacher for decades, I did this on a regular basis. “How did the day go? Did I meet everyone’s objectives today? Do I need to reteach the lesson tomorrow or move faster? Did anyone have a meltdown and if so, why? Did I return all the phone calls I needed to and how did those conversations go?” I felt comfortable in these self-evaluations and used them to improve myself over the years.

Lately, though, my little inner voice has started raising doubts about the ‘performance objectives’ I chose to evaluate all those years. Not with my students, of course, I would have jumped through rings of fire daily for them. Children have never frightened me, even when asked to supervise hundreds at one time, or when called upon to handle their academic, physical or emotional needs. I have spent hours of my life teaching, listening, laughing, crying, and meeting their individual needs.

No, my shame comes from all the adults that I let down over the years. All those times when I automatically and falsely asked my co-workers, “How are you?” and then was ‘too busy’ to listen to their answer. People can sense that and quickly learn your words have a hollow ring to them. Sadly, they learn to respond with the same rote answer, “I’m fine.”

Newly retired, I’m at a new crossroads in my life and painfully rethinking if I missed the mark. Maybe I chose the wrong priorities to concentrate on and deem worthy of my daily attention. I thought ‘being busy’ was a badge of honor. This year I started to feel the sting of OMG, I got it all wrong for so many years. I slowly questioned whether ‘my focus’, ‘my truth’ was miscalculated, wrong, a falsehood. My heart is now telling me this truth and I begin to feel the hurt I caused so many people along the way. I feel the burn. The weight of all the years of shame, could suffocate me, if I went there. But, thank goodness, my heart is kinder than my brain and won’t let me relive all those moments.

This painful revelation of mine has come about because I’m still grieving the loss of my best friend and mother-in-law, Sue or Mags, as my brother so affectionately named her. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, we are all being bombarded with the commericalization of love, but Mags was the ‘real deal,’ the epitome of unconditional love.

When I first started dating her son all those years ago, I asked him what she was like and I still remember his response. “Well, I could go out and murder five people and when I got home she would open the door for me and welcome me back.” But it wasn’t just her children she loved unconditionally.  Extended family members, friends and complete strangers all seemed to sense she cared about how they felt and her response was always the same, accepting, loving, solid.

During her long life, she bravely confronted her own bout with mental illness and was keenly aware of how powerful feelings are to a person’s well-being. Most of us are comfortable ‘doctoring’ someone’s physical ailment, such as a scrape, cut or burn. Sue understood the importance of listening, caring and validating a person’s feelings. That’s what set her apart from other people. She was one of those rare people who wasn’t scared of emotions and never tried to suppress them. Instead she invited people to share their hurt, anger, confusion and respected those feelings by giving the person her undivided attention and time.

People knew they could share their ‘darkest side’ with her and she would go on loving them. Even if she didn’t agree with a person’s stand on an issue, she was always open minded to hearing what you had to say and she always made you feel she had all the time in the world to listen to your feelings.  In this day and age, that is a rare and treasured quality. After a person unloaded their emotions on her and apologized for doing so, her standard answer was always, “I’m glad you shared all of that with me,” “of course, you feel that way,” or “I want you to tell me how you are feeling.”

By the time I met her, she was in her early 60’s and those unconditional loving skills were nearing perfection. Over the next thirty years I would observe her in action and marvel at her sincerity and ability to make people comfortable enough to ‘tell it all.’ I saw her open her home to young students who were on their ‘mission’ and show geniune interest as they were telling their story. When her aunt became delusional and started pointing out the scary sinister spirts that appeared high up in the corners, Sue lovingly replied, “O’ Aunt Helen, I see them too, but they have friendly faces.”  Her aunt would immediately calm down.

Her other daughter-in-laws and myself were also on the receiving end of her kindness & wisdom even at 3 AM, if necessary. Having been in a loving marriage for close to 60 years, she was always open to listening to us talk about our worries, even if those were her sons’ faults.  She had a gift for empathizing with people hurting emotionally and knew the value of sharing those feelings. No subject was ever taboo and I never once heard her say she was ‘too busy’ to listen. Looking back, I realize she made time because it was a top priority, just like a physical bleeding wound.

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During her mid- 80’s, I watched her visit for hours with her grandchildren during their college breaks and listen to their new ideas about life. When one of the granddaughters lived with her and decided to ‘sow her wild oats’ by not returning home for days on end, her loving response was “I don’t condone what you are doing right now, however, I love you no matter what and I know you’ll find your true self again.” Sure enough, a few years later, her granddaughter turned herself around. And to this day, that granddaughter credits Sue for ‘loving her through her dark period without judging, but instead believing that she would find her way.”

When I married Sue’s son, she told me, “You are marrying my dove.” She described another son as her hawk, but loved them both the same. That’s what unconditional love is, you know the person’s faults, but love them anyway. Marrying her dove and suddenly having her for a mother-in-law was in many ways, like moving to a foreign country. Unlike the ‘house’ I grew up in, my new family lived in a ‘home.’ Growing up, I don’t recall anyone asking me how I felt about anything. Even when I was eight and my mother died suddenly from cancer, no one talked to me about my feelings. In fact, I was sent to a complete stranger’s house to spend a few nights while the funeral arrangements were made. She was elderly, lived alone and I felt so lonely without my older siblings.  In those days, when I did get my feelings hurt and started crying, the standard response was, “Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” I quickly learned feelings were just something that would cause you pain and not something you discussed.

So after my ‘formal education’ and my marriage into Sue’s family, my education about feelings began. I was taught at the knee of a master, and when she reached her nineties, she made me promise I would take over as the ‘matriarch.’ After her passing, I cried for weeks, and now almost a year later, I’m still not over my grief. Part of my despair, of course, is losing her as my mentor and the prospect of trying to follow her act of living ‘unconditional love. It’s tough to follow her act.

I remember once after one of her ‘listening sessions’ with a distraught friend, she looked at me and said, “I feel like a complete idiot without a brain in my head.” In other words, she had listened attentively, but felt she hadn’t contributed to the conversation. In reality, Sue had helped mightily because her friend left feeling much better. I’ve thought about that comment a lot and have decided that was one of the “tools in her toolbox” to living unconditional love.

When people approach us to talk, most of us do a poor job of really listening. In our minds, we prepare what we will say in response, or how WE would feel in a similar situation or how similar their situation is to one that we experienced. But giving unconditional love is not about how we feel, it’s about the other person. And most importantly, it’s not about our time line, but the other person’s.

Sue had faith and trust in people to believe that by sharing their stories, they were capable of  figuring out the answers to their own dilemmas. In other words, she empowered them. She respected people as equals and never felt that they came to her to solve their problems. Her gift was her ability to be a caring, attentive listener while giving the other person time to sort things out. I’m sure she did feel like a moron at times and never realized the depth of her value.

When SpeakYourStory first made its mark almost a year ago, Sue was still alive and  I wasn’t open to exploring my own shame issues. But a lot can change in one year.  I now realize that one of my biggest shames has been not being brave enough to open my heart to other people’s emotions. I hid behind the veil of ‘being too busy’ when in reality I didn’t feel competent and was scared to open up my heart.

Once when I was supervising a student teacher and I quickly inquired how her day was going, she responded, “Don’t ask if you don’t have time to listen.” OUCH! She had obviously gotten the message that my words had no substance to them. At the time, of course, I justified my actions because I didn’t have time to listen, that I was ‘too busy’ with ‘my students.’ Sue and SPEAKYOURSTORY have given me the same challenge this year, to live with unconditional love.

This month I am putting all Sue’s lessons I learned to use.  The next time I ask someone how they are feeling the question will be genuine. My body language will tell them I am emotionally there for them and not ‘too busy.’

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