I Am Third: 5 Ways to Healing Through Selflessness

You have to look after yourself. You have to take care of you. You have to be good to yourself. Look out for number one. Your needs come first.

This is often what we hear when we're hurting, when marriages fail, loved ones die, friendships end. We want to withdraw and heal, wrap our wounded feelings in a protective shell and slowly nurse them back to health in the hope that they -- we -- will emerge stronger and wiser. When we are hurting it's only natural to think of ourselves first and turn away from others, but I suggest that there is greater healing power in doing the opposite and putting the needs of others ahead of ours. This can be summed up in three simple words: I Am Third.

I Am Third means these are my priorities:
  1. God
  2. Everyone Else
  3. Me
I Am Third is a manifesto of selflessness through which we come to understand that we are not slaves to our feelings and we do not have to take personally the hurtful things people say and do. Our feelings are not drivers of our actions, but guides, and in seeking to serve others first we learn to see them and treat them with compassion, empathy, understanding and love. This is what God calls us all to do, and I believe that serving others first is serving God.

I developed The Five Ways to Healing Through Selflessness from the The Prayer of St. Francis, and it has long been the way I have tried to live my life.

1. Seek first to understand, not to be understood.
How often do we find ourselves angry, resentful or hurt thinking "they just don't understand!" When we feel this way it is important to question why we are so upset. Are we trying too hard to be right at all costs? Are we trying too hard to get our own way? Are we convinced that everyone else has it all wrong and if they would just listen things would work better? For many, feeling misunderstood and alienated are the chief causes of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. 

Practice listening with soft eyes and an open mind. Where there is darkness, heal by bringing the light of understanding.

2. Seek first to console, not to be consoled.
You've fought with your friend, spouse or partner, co-worker, or sibling and you've walked away deeply hurt. He or she said things that you never thought you'd hear and now you are miserable. You're wearing your sadness like a heavy cloak, wishing for someone to come and lift it from your shoulders, to tell you things will be ok again, and spare a moment with you. You need a little support. But ask yourself how many others are walking around wearing cloaks like yours, or heavier  than yours, who also need someone. How many people in your life feel sad or worried or scared or lost and wish for someone to come along and be there for them? 

Practice reaching out to others and offering help with even the smallest of things: you just might relieve a heavy burden. Where there is despair, heal by raising hope.

3. Seek first to give, not to receive.
Many people observe Christmas, whether in the secular or religious sense, and for some, unfortunately, it is a time of great sadness and anxiety because of the way we measure our worth in relation to gifts. Just as we hate the thought of disappointing, we secretly hate the thought of being disappointed. Gifts are expressions of how we feel, so what does a bad gift say? Or no gift? I once tried to console a little boy whose parents couldn't afford many Christmas gifts. He asked me why Santa Clause hates him, and I had no answer. My feelings at getting a disappointing gift are nothing to the feelings of that little boy's.

Practice sacrifice and giving freely to others. Where there is sadness, heal by bringing joy to others.

4. Seek first to forgive, not to be forgiven.
How many times do we need to be told that it takes two to tango? We are just as capable of hurting others as we are of hurting them, and sometimes the greater hurt we do is in refusing to forgive others. Forgiving is terribly difficult, probably one of the hardest things we face. We can't imagine forgiving the drunk driver who hurts or kills a loved one. We shrink away from forgiving an abusive parent. We cut people out of our lives because they have hurt us. But forgiveness is for us more than it is for them because it allows us to move on and leave past hurts in the past. To forgive is to unclench the fist of rage in our soul.

Practice seeing things from others' perspectives and try to imagine what they are feeling. Where there is injury, heal through pardoning.

5. Seek first to love, not to be loved.
How easy it is to feel unloved or, worse, undeserving of love. The most common reason cited for divorce, extra-marital affairs and family breakup is loss of love. But love, and being loved, is as essential to humans as food, water and shelter. Whether you think love is nothing more than a bio-chemical response to the mating urge or a transcendent spiritual connection between people, you know how it feels to love and be loved. Parents, siblings, children, friends... we have a range of people in our lives whose love is so essential to us we can't bear the thought of losing it. But do we stop to consider how essential our love might be to someone else? Look around you: who are the people in your life who need your love? What if you were the only person in the world to show them any love? Could you stop?

Practice being unconditionally kind, gentle, caring, understanding, supportive. Help out. Give. But above all always assume that others need your love because you are the only one showing them any. Where there is hatred, heal by sowing the seeds of love.

Our own feelings matter too, but a funny thing happens through I Am Third: you forget all about the things that used to bother you. You become more resilient, and resistant to hurt. Emotional reactions give way to emotional responses. You become more serene and balanced. You find joy.

Then, suddenly, peace breaks out all around you.

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