In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me
there lay an invincible summer.
– Albert Camus
Several years ago I read an old novel called The Circle Of The Day, by Helen Howe. Basically it describes a single day in the life of an ordinary woman, but of course this day turns out to be anything but ordinary.
In the first few pages we meet our heroine (I like that her name is Faith) as she quietly reflects on her comfortable, stable life and her relationships with the people around her. And then she learns something that changes everything about the way she sees her life and her relationships. Naturally she’s thrown completely off-balance, and struggles to come to terms with this new perception of reality. But that very effort leads her to new revelations, new realities that she has no choice but to try and get a handle on, and trying to get a handle on them leads inevitably to even more revelations. By the end of the day (which is also the end of the book) she is almost a different woman, not because her life has changed (it hasn’t, really) but because her perceptions have changed so profoundly.
Extend the concept’s timeframe and you have a perfect summary of my past year.
I’m still living in the same house, still filling my days with the same parenting and gardening and housework that I’ve always done, but everything has changed. And that didn’t –couldn’t have — happened all at once. The passing words of wisdom that shone a new light in my mind a month ago might have meant nothing to me four months ago, because I wasn’t…you know, there yet. I had to follow the path, step by step, in order to understand the vista as it unfolded.
My most recent revelation was one of those things that seems ridiculously simple and obvious in retrospect, and yet it literally took me 40 years to grasp.
And now I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to explain it, because I don’t want to say it wrong, because it’s a profoundly important concept if one hopes to live a spiritually effective life.
Okay. I’ve never been one to stick neat, confining labels onto people, and I know that sweeping generalities tend to fail when you take a closer look at things, but I have come to understand that pretty much everyone in the world falls into one of two groups: the Holder-Downers and the Lifter-Uppers.
Holder-Downers come in two basic flavors: the ones who need to see themselves as (and be recognized as) superior beings and believe that the way to do that is to crush everyone around them; and the (much rarer) ones who have knowingly embraced the dark side and simply want to spread as much darkness as possible.
Lifter-Uppers feel that the way to make the world a better place is to improve the condition of the entire human race, one person at a time if need be. They freely offer a kind word or a helping hand to almost anyone in need of one.
Here’s where it gets less simple, and this is the part that took me longest to grasp: a Lifter-Upper cannot help a Holder-Downer in any meaningful way. Holder-Downers don’t want to be lifted up. They may want to use you for whatever they can get and leave your empty shell behind, they may want to take what you have because they think that if it makes you happy then maybe it will make them happy too, they may want to actively destroy you if you appear to be standing between them and something they desire, but they have zero interest in personal redemption. You cannot help them. Move on. They’re in God’s hands, and if He wants to reach into their heart and transform them He’s fully capable of that. You are not, so don’t waste your time trying. Most of them are spiritual vampires who will drain you dry if you let them.
This is not to say that all Holder-Downers should be avoided completely. For one thing that’s not even possible: there are too many of them, they’re everywhere. For another thing, many of them have something useful to teach you about the life-destroying forces of greed, selfishness and malice. A good long look at the empty lives of spiritual futility that Holder-Downers inevitably lead can be a powerful motivator for keeping your own moral compass calibrated in the right direction.
Sometimes it takes a while to figure out which camp a person belongs to, and sometimes it only takes a conversation or two. The Holder-Downers are usually the ones telling you all about what’s wrong with you, or what they want you to think is wrong with you. The Lifter-Uppers are the ones searching out what’s best in you, your most redeeming qualities, and nourishing those.
That’s not to say there’s only room for praise in a Lifting relationship. A few weeks ago I was with a group of friends, and at one point me and a couple of the others made some humorous comments about the personality quirks of someone else we know. I don’t think we were being mean-spirited, and we certainly meant no harm, but we were in fact laughing and joking about the foibles of an absent friend.
Then another girl said very gently, “I know I’m the youngest one here, and I don’t know [that person], but they’re not here, and I think if they were here their feelings would probably be hurt.”
We all instantly felt the truth of what she’d said, and the jokes stopped. This is the kind of company I delight in now: the ones that like and accept me just as I am while inspiring me to be better. Lifters.
Happy Love Thursday, everyone. May we all do our best to be Lifter-Uppers, and not let the Holder-Downers get a toehold on our souls.