Recently, Richie has been posting, on Facebook and his website, pieces of ephemera from his bicycle history with his reflections and backstory. Since his involvement with bicycles, bicycle racing, and frame building dates back to the early 1970’s this project, taken as a whole, has become a testament of sorts to his life—his choices, his experiences, his observations.
Tonight, we go to my parent’s sixtieth wedding anniversary dinner party. To give them something, my four siblings and I have been combing through photographs. There are lots of photos of sailing—comfy coastal sailing and gritty ocean sailing. There is one of my Dad hang gliding, another of my Mom horseback riding in the Grand Canyon (looking none too thrilled), a lovely one of her resting on a Swiss mountaintop à la Sound of Music, and one of them in Russia with a young Russian couple they met when they were stuck there for a bit.
Reading the ephemera and perusing the photographs makes me think, what makes a life? Is it adventure and experiences—new places, travel? Is it people—those you’ve met and interacted with within your passion? Or is it something more fundamental?
The common denominator in Richie’s ephemera and my parents’ travels is connection. Each of them has lived—is living—a life filled with connection. Connections to people, places, adventures, experiences, words, ideas, nature.
So what makes a life?
The courage to connect is what makes a life.
Mother Theresa spent five decades ministering to the poor of Calcutta. For her life of selfless service you would think she would have felt fulfilled, but you would be wrong. In letters she wrote and asked to be burned after her death (but were not), she admitted to her advisors and priests that she felt empty, lost and even tortured. Those were her words. Her advisors said that just showed her closeness to Jesus—that she suffered as he did. That’s one interpretation, but here’s another: She wasn’t filling her own needs, and so she didn’t feel fulfilled.
We’ve been conditioned to hold up the selfless life, the life of sacrificing one’s own needs to help others, as admirable. But what are we really doing when we do this? We are denying ourselves the compassion and love we think it is so admirable to give others.
We’re supposed to be living selfish (in the meaning of self-care) lives; lives of compassionate self-care, not lives of willful self-neglect. If we truly take care of our own needs out of self-love and self-respect, we will have learned compassion for ourselves, which naturally awakens compassion for others, since we will have understood the connection of all things.
So when Mother Theresa admitted that she felt empty and that she continued each day through self-will, she was actually ignoring self-compassion and its fulfilling, connecting aspect. She was left feeling empty, because she was empty.
Like the oxygen mask in the airplane—the one you’re told to put on first before you help someone else—it’s your job to take care of yourself first, because how much are you helping, really, if you’re passed out from lack of oxygen?