Lessons Learned: How to heal yourself through helping others

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Solvej Lee/The Occidental

While the world was on pause, the leaves outside my little brick house continued to change and the scent of snow meandered through the city. I was just getting settled into my senior year of high school, thumbing through college booklets and dreaming about leaving the place where my trauma surrounded me.

It was around this time, two years ago, when I picked up the phone to hear that my best friend’s mother was re-diagnosed with cancer. I was in the midst of an emotional challenge of my own, holding more emotions than I ever had before. Time moved like the sticky molasses my grandmother scooped into her gingerbread cookie batter. My heart was in pieces, scattered across too many corners of my life.

I wondered if love, gratitude and healing came from a finite place. Is there a reserve inside me, a container of happiness? How much is in my container? Are my tears a lake, and was I going to be in a drought? Does giving come from a space of scarcity? Or is energy infinite?

After a few days bundled up in the refuge of my flowered childhood bedroom, I emerged with a determination to fill my best friend’s life with love. I brought her banana smoothies, pumpkin muffins and squeezes that lasted hours. Her little sister and I went ice skating and ate spoonfuls of birthday cake ice cream, her face gleaming with warmth and relief.

Books like “Tao Te Ching” and “The Four Agreements” were scattered around my home since I was in elementary school. Only after I tried to describe the feeling I get from gift giving in a college essay did I resonate with the phenomenon of mudita.

In Buddhism, mudita embodies finding unselfish joy from all beings, its presence weakening jealousy and envy, spreading happiness. Its companion is compassion, and sunny warm feelings inside my chest. My warmth is strengthening, not only to others, but to myself. I found support for the both of us in mudita.

I want to buy all the flowers, memorize every coffee order, give all the hugs. I could spend hours sitting at my butcher block filling birthday cards with colored ink. My generosity was always easy in my younger years, before money became finite and when time was as abundant as the clear Colorado air. But as I grow older, obstacles grow to be more serious than getting the smaller half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I have questioned my ability to help others when I barely feel that I can help myself.

Mudita carried me through my last year of high school and held me up as I moved away for the first time to a frosty mountain town. In my moments of longing for home, I directed my energy towards blooming my freshly planted relationships. I could count on my generosity to brighten the people around me, and subsequently, the reflection of this light back onto me. I continue to trust the abilities of my love to glue the pieces of my heart back together as I start college and grow another new home.

The feeling of being drained completely of energy is what forced me to refuel myself in a way I had never considered. I could motivate myself through others, finding strength for myself by giving it to others at the same time. I do, in fact, have an infinite amount of love, joy and generosity. I am able to recognize all of the beauty in breaking and how we build ourselves back up.

I’m not saying that you will always see me putting others in front of my own needs, but I have learned that in helping others can I help myself. Making others happy fills me with happiness, so if you feel this way when you do something for someone else, I encourage you to use it almost as you would self-care. Find a way to bring joy to someone else’s life, whether it is a doodle on a post-it note or a tissue for their tears. It will wrap you up in a blanket of gratitude and warm you like a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

Contact Mollie Barnes at mbarnes@oxy.edu.