There was a long stretch of time, say, about 47 years, when I knew I was right about everything. I was sure that without my careful attention people wouldn't be happy.
I never said the sentiment out loud, because I had enough self-awareness to know it wouldn't be received well. That's as far as my ability to be honest with myself went, though. My success rate at helping others for a long time was even pretty good. I believed I was in control and could get things done better than most other people. Lucky, lucky people.
The main tools at my disposal were charm, patience and gifts, big and small, instead of shouting or threats, because I still wanted to be seen as a nice person.
There's an incident where I gave a car, a nice, maroon, Ford Escort, to someone hoping this would cement our friendship. It didn't, but she took the car anyway. At the time, I was more upset over my plan not working out.
I was particularly good at being the audience for someone, sitting patiently through whatever they were doing, so that I could count them as a friend. Long hours watching someone else shop, or work on a car, or rehearse for a dance recital, while I sat there, immobile. Now, I'd call it passive hostage-taking.
I also had a lot of practice taking care of others, and even now, I can still multi-task with the best of them. I managed to author three books, write a syndicated column, raise a son and tend to elderly parents, all at the same time. I got used to trying to write something cohesive about the elections, while listening to my father's TV in the background.
Sure, there was help available, but I told myself that it was easier to just do it myself. At the same time, I was investigating self-help books, spiritual gurus, sweat lodges, churches and more, trying to fix the gaping hole inside of myself. All along, I never saw any kind of connection.
My view was that I was being of service, even if it was wearing me out. Besides, I loved the way people responded to the framework of my story. There were 'ooohs' and 'aaahs' as people admired what I had valiantly done with the circumstances I'd been given. I had soldiered on, my story said, despite all of these people.
Eventually, those closest to me stopped wanting my help. Some, like my son, grew angry at my constant need to mention how, with just a tweak, what they were doing could be better. He started to avoid me. Others would either laugh good-naturedly that they were OK without my assistance, or give me a quiet lecture about minding my own business.
My entire vision of myself was quickly deteriorating, and in its wake, I saw that there was very little to fill the vacancy. All of those years of ignoring my own desires or starting and stopping a project of my own, or just outright giving away the fruits of my efforts, had left me with only the outline of a life. I was still stuck at the beginning stages.
There had been a house, but I had sold it a long time ago. There was a career as a writer, but I had kept switching genres and trying something new. There had been relationships, but I had picked those who needed me the most. It was like I was building my own house, but every time there was the beginning of a solid foundation, I tore it apart and gave away the bricks to someone else or started yet another new house just down the block.
Even worse, all of my meddling had taught those I loved that I was their Higher Power and they couldn't make a move without consulting me. On their own, they would probably fail and disaster would surely follow. I was teaching them to be afraid of trusting themselves and their own choices, which is really what I believed about myself all along.
It's taken a few years, but by consistently sticking to my own business, I've been able to figure out a few things. I've discovered I'm a decent runner and guitar player, both new, and had the nerve to jump out of a plane this year.
My literary agent has been especially relieved to see me ask for her advice, and actually take it, and we now have a plan. And, lo and behold, some of the people I love have noticed all of the changes and come back to share it all with me. It's a real life and I'm going to keep building it from here.
Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.