Difficult People this Christmas: “And the Wisdom to Know the Difference”*

Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness  (c)2014 Nancy Virden

photo-26167281-10-23-14-christmas-icons-5-faces-09Renee* has lived eighty-nine years. She and her husband came to America in the 1950s, young and full of dreams. She was a statuesque blonde fiercely in love and hoping to raise a family with her strong dark-haired carpenter. He loved her too, and together they built a life.

After their daughter had grown-up, the carpenter lived to meet two grandchildren. He passed away seven years ago. Renee speaks of him fondly and shows off pictures from his younger days. For a few brief seconds, she seems lighter, then as she finishes telling her tales her eyes return to listlessness.

She lives in a nursing home, unable to walk well enough to be alone. Her remaining family is far away except for a sister who visits once per week and brings her candy. Renee is diligent with physical therapy because she does not want to fall, but other than that and meals in the dining hall, she watches television in her room.

I want to fix things for Renee, do something to make her happy. Only I cannot. Wisdom tells me my role is no savior, but a friend. There are other responsibilities that would be neglected if I spent most of my time trying to make Renee feel good. I visit her, and she is glad when I come by. For maybe an hour per week she is happier; that is all I can do.

At Christmastime, we may be confronted with issues in the world or people in our families we would like to change. Grumpy (or drunk) Uncles John. Silent (or abusive) Aunts Jane. Moms who never seem to understand. Dads who cannot say I love you. If we could, we would will celebrations at our houses to look and sound like those lovely holiday movies.

Or maybe we had a wonderful family that is no longer the same due to death or distance. Perhaps misunderstanding has drawn a line between people we care about. With all our hearts we want to fix it and restore things to as they were, as they should be.

The first three phrases of the Serenity Prayer are best known. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” My gifts, money, and time are devoted to spreading the message every life is valuable, no one needs to die by suicide, and hope is available. I cannot make anyone believe me. It is not in my power to demolish emotional pain for other people.

Two people repeated the same message to me for years. After attempting suicide in 2011,  it was nearly impossible to comprehend any hope or that my life held value. Therapists invested time and energy to help me see the truth while I argued, demanded more of them than was fair, and distrusted their intentions. They used their arsenal of skills, but neither could make me accept what they offered. They could not change me. “That’s your job,” I was told. “Do you want to stay depressed?”

And so it is with the world, our holiday get-togethers, and Renee. Life can be hard and lonely. We are surrounded by people experiencing similar pain. In the end, it is up to each person to decide how to react. We have the power to change only ourselves. While I do what I can for Renee, wisdom tells me the rest of her burden is not mine to bear.

And then it’s acceptance and serenity all over again.


NOTE: I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help are yours.

* not her real name

**picture from qualitystockphotos.com

*This is a post from 2014

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