Attitude, we all have one. Our approach to a person, situation or event usually has a great influence on how it will turn out for us and everyone else involved. One bad attitude can wreck an entire party. The same thing can happen within our homes. There is one chapter in the book Arms of Love, by Carmen Marcoux, that shows how one person who “woke up on the wrong side of the bed” can have a profound negative effect on the whole family, but it also shows how one act of kindness can turn it all around.
A Tale of Two AttitudesWhen we had a much smaller family, only 4 children, we went on a family retreat. At this time, we were a very young inexperienced family who had a very challenging 3 year old daughter in addition to two older daughters and a newborn baby boy. This 3 year old daughter was just a little too capable for her age and our level of parenting ability. She could climb anything, open child proof pill bottles and we were constantly telling her “no” and “stop that”. Our approach to parenting this child was to control her and keep her from making our life difficult. This approach was killing us and our daughter, it was not fun for anyone and was a source of tension within our family.
When we arrived at the retreat center, we met the staff and volunteers that would lead us through the family retreat. One guy noticed the strained relationship we had with our daughter and without saying a word he showed us a different attitude we could take with her. Instead of constantly stopping her from helping, he gave her jobs to do that would channel her energy into something productive. Instead of viewing her enthusiasm as something to be stopped, it was something to be guided and nurtured. We immediately noticed what he was doing and watched with amazement at how effective it was. We adopted his approach and the results have been impressive. Once we changed from being focused on how difficult her actions made our lives and started to look at how best we could help her to be the best she could be, she became a source of joy and an asset to our family. To this day, she is one of our most independent and capable children. There are very few tasks she is unable to accomplish and instead of making our lives difficult, she makes them easier, much, much easier.
The Other End of the Spectrum of Life
We are currently living through a similar situation on the other side of the circle of life. We have parents who are getting older and are having health problems. The symptoms of the health problems make for an unpleasant situation for everyone. Loss of independence, the ability to feel good at all times and needing to be assisted to accomplish tasks which used to be easy, is enough to make everyone miserable especially the aging parent.
There are two ways we can approach such situations, we can focus on how it affects us or we can look at it from the other person’s perspective and try to enter into the very real struggle they are experiencing. We are self focused beings, we are born selfish and we spend our whole lives trying to get rid of that natural inclination. When someone we love experiences a loss of ability due to health problems we have two choices, we can become frustrated with them for not being able to do what we were used to them being able to do, or we can empathize with their struggles and do whatever we can to ease their burden.
The main obstacle to the second approach is that it necessarily requires change on our part. We may not be able to maintain our normal schedule due to another person not being able to focus on the task at hand that needs to be completed prior to leaving the house. We may have to forgo participation in our social activities because we need to care for someone who can’t care for themselves any longer.
I know a woman whose husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer and while there was much for her to suffer personally, she made the decision to drop out of all her regular activities and care for her husband full time no matter how difficult it was and no matter how thankless the job was. When people are sick and hurting both physically and emotionally, they often say mean things, become impatient and demanding. It is easy to focus on how these undesirable behaviors are wrong and how much they hurt you. However, it is virtuous to put yourself in the shoes of the cancer patient and realize that they are hurting way more than you are. We are called to empathize with the sick and dying and to do what we can to lighten the burden they are carrying even if they don’t appear to appreciate it. Our attitude is key, we can view each situation positively, or constantly complain about how awful our situation is and how difficult it is. Having a positive attitude in the midst of great suffering, our own or the suffering of another, is very powerful and can have a profound effect on everyone we interact with including the person for whom we are caring.
Living Life with a Focus on Others
Not all of us will have to deal with a spouse who dies from cancer or has to live with dementia or some other irreversible mental health condition, but we will all have situations where we can choose to focus on the needs others instead of ourselves. Each day we can practice putting others first, and ourselves second, isn’t this what Jesus did for us? Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins. The people he suffered for didn’t deserve it, most didn’t thank Jesus for it and some even actively participated in his suffering and death. He could see past the outward actions of them and even cry out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” We are called to do the same.