QUESTION: I recently broke up with a partner because it became clear that we were both on very different diverging paths. I had been trying to open up a more emotionally vulnerable and open space between us and he wasn’t comfortable with creating the time or space to do so, primarily because it made him anxious to not be working on all the things on his to-do lists. 

He had expressed to me before that he could never just lay in bed on a Saturday morning or go for an evening walk, because he feels like he doesn’t have time for that when he’s trying to make sure he has time to exercise, cook, maintain his garden, and build the things he wants to build. It made me sad to realize, that for him doing the things he loves and chooses to do cause him anxiety for fear of not getting them all done. I admit that I too suffer from this predicament. The difference between us, however, is that I am trying to unravel that anxiety by looking inside myself to see where it stems from (i.e. through meditation and therapy), while he is trying to manage his anxiety by crossing things off his lists, in the hopes that once that list is empty his anxieties will disappear. Of course, the way the world works is that no matter how many times he crosses something off his list, his anxiety will still creep back up.

My question is what is my (or anyone’s) responsibility in helping another person along their path? I wanted to reach out to let him know that life doesn’t have to be that way, that the anxiety he is facing (and many of us face) is not a result of his to-do list, but stems from something much deeper. This is not to say I want to tell him what step he needs to take next or that I know what is best for him, but I just want to point out to him that the anxiety he is feeling is something that is created, not implicit. I know that no one but him can do the work, and everyone is on their own path, on the other hand, we all have a certain amount of agency, and being exposed to new ideas/perspectives can be powerful. So I ask, what is one’s responsibility in assisting a loved one along their path when you see that they are suffering (especially in the situation where they haven’t explicitly reached out for advice/help)?

ANSWER: Break ups are never easy, but especially not so when we care so deeply for someone, as you seem to. So my heart goes out to you. At the same time, kudos to you for having the courage to see the situation clearly and in taking care of yourself. Our first and foremost responsibility is to truth, as it is revealed to us. That is the only true compass. Without it, we are lost. We are living in a time where truth is knocking loudly on all of our doors. Intentionally or unintentionally not paying attention has painful consequences. So always remember that your first responsibility is to act on what is revealed to you. Putting anyone or anything before that is disastrous business. Sounds simple but, in fact, is quite difficult, since many of us are externally referent, especially those of us who practice the black magic art of caretaking.

Now to your specific question. There is a slight, but important, adjustment to how you are seeing the situation. It is not that your ex feels anxious when he is not crossing off routine checklists. He is so overwhelmingly anxious, that any time he is not in constant movement - he becomes overwhelmed with the anxiety that is barely kept in check. He is not aware of this consciously. Of course, this is most of us to a major extent. What is even more sad is that approaching life from this place never allows us to taste anything. Accomplishments can come and go, but we are not home to taste them. We are already on to the next thing. This pushing down of anxiety is the direct cause of our alienation: we have been running so fast and so long that we have no idea who we are. That inner compass, that is needed to steer life with, is nowhere to be felt, since we can never slow down enough to check within.

We are helpless in helping others unless they ask for help. On top of that, we need to be solidly on the road to being out of the need for help ourselves. Not perfect, not enlightened, just aware that our anxiety about another could very well be a reflection of our own unmet anxiety. At the very least, we need to be steady in our own internal connection. Helping others as a way of not dealing with our own issues is a common avoidance method. Keep an eye on this as you proceed.

You can ask to see if he is open to hearing your perception of what is going on. If there is resistance, then there is your answer. It seems that he has already made it clear by his actions in the relationship that he is not ready to change. But you can present your case again if you feel moved to do so. Look inside and be clear: is this for him or for some unresolved issue within you? Often we need to heal these remaining issues within ourselves after a breakup.

If there is some willingness on his part, then you can offer your truth. Never underestimate people’s unconscious comfort in their suffering. That is their choice and we have to be okay with it. Not easy to see another willingly (albeit unconsciously) choose suffering, but we are helpless there. Our work in this situation is to then go back to our own center. Take heart in the fact that everyone wakes up at some point. Keep plugging away on your own healing and awakening. Remembering our center and living from that place is truly the ultimate gift as well as responsibility to others on the path.