There is an oft-quoted saying that goes, “You cannot pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”
The expression is lifted from Ursula Fosters book of the same title. I’m sure the expression itself has been around a lot longer than that, but to echo Beverly Weston of August: Osage County, she gets credit for it because she bothered to write it down. I hear this expression quite often, and every time I do, I have to stop and think about it, because in some sense it is a reasonable expression, and in another sense, I’m not sure how apt it is to every day living.
My confusion comes from my own experiences. For much of my life, I have been a caregiver for my mother. I’ve held a number of jobs in-between, but otherwise I’ve spent a significant portion of my life taking care of her every day needs, with the past 7 years being the most intense and time consuming. I get little sleep, I have no personal time set aside, with time to myself being whatever few minutes I get in-between calls for something, or normal chores that need doing. In a somewhat larger sense, I take care of my mother and father. While my mother is bedbound, my father is too exhausted, and seems unable to handle the small details present in managing a life, so I take care of these details, while also maintaining the constant care needed by my mother.
I manage bills, appointments, household chores, incoming calls from friends, debtors, and family. When she was in the hospital, I slept an average of 4 hours a day, and the rest of that time was used in keeping the family at large in the know on current events regarding mom, while still handling the day-to-day when I would come home around midnight every night. I have been on this course for years, years and years, without a day off. In 7 years I haven’t eaten an uninterrupted meal, taken an uninterrupted shower, enjoyed an uninterrupted sleep, and even typing this post I will be interrupted at least three or four times before I leave the last jot on the paper. I have no time for personal time. I certainly have no social time. My last date was in 2002. My last day off was in 2010.
“You cannot pour from an empty cup.”
I’m still pouring everything I have into the cups of others. I cannot, with good conscience, say that no one has poured anything into my cup. I have friends who do their damndest to fill that cup whenever they can, and often I worry if I’m going to take too much away from them. Even though I can do so little for them in return, they freely give their time and love to help me keep pouring. I couldn’t ask for better friends, and I have the tear drop stains on this very keyboard to prove it.
Still, just how big can the cup possibly be? No one person has unlimited energy. Something has to give eventually. I know my friends worry for me, but I do have to wonder just how deep is the well? How far down does it go? I know I’m running out, I know this, I can feel it, I can sense it, but I am still just utterly fascinated by the fact that I’m asking this question calmly rather than screaming from the rooftops. That’s not to say I don’t feel used, I do. It’s not to imply that I am okay with all of this, because I’m not. I am constantly aware of the passage of time, and my heart falters at the knowledge which says I will die alone. It is difficult being the one family member of the three of us (my brother lives with his wife and kids), that hears every tick and tock of the clock as a death knell, a hammer blow that chips away at the foundations of my sanity and good will.
“Take care of yourself first.”
I wonder if Ursula understood what a monumental task this was when she wrote it? To me, it is the equivalent of saying “Mountain, I command you to move!” and just as likely to happen in real life, no offense intended to a besandaled middle eastern nomad who will have claimed otherwise. Some of us don’t have people in high places to engage in the heavy lifting. Taking care of one’s self first implies one has the time and resources to do so. Does she not realize that if one could simply take care of one’s self whenever it was needed, there would be no need for her self-help workshops? It’s a fine idea, in theory but, like all things geared to human beings, it falls apart upon practical application.
I say, mountain? Move!
The mountain’s not moving.
Move, mountain! Move aside!
The mountain can’t even get out of its own way. You can chip away at it over many years, it can be shoved aside by pressure and violent upheaval, but it cannot simply be moved by the will. If only it were that easy, we would live in a field of plains. So the mountain’s not going away quickly, and since I don’t have the lifespan of quasi-immortal rock, or a universe that can expand lazily like a cat lying in a sunny spot by the window, that leaves me without ability or time, both necessary for mountain moving.
So we come back to the cup. Everyone’s cup is different, and no one should ever be ashamed when their cup finally empties. I’m either so blessed or invariably cursed to have a larger, deeper cup than some. Maybe most, who knows? It’s not like I’m trying to compare sizes. I’m just curious as to how I continue when everything in me is pleading for me to stop. I can’t stop, and maybe it’s the knowledge that I can’t that keeps me going, that if I do stop, someone’s life will become truly awful almost immediately, with no one else to pick up the slack.
Still, I know that my cup will not flow indefinitely. I am no Strega Nona, and there is no infinite supply. Unfortunately, there also appears to be no end in sight, so it is likely that regardless of my pleas, I will eventually find out how one pours from an empty cup. In no way do I imagine it to be at all beneficial to anyone.