How to Become a Better Person - An Interview, Part Four
This is the last installment in Skyler's story. We've sat by her as she described her childhood, her experience with drugs and alcohol, and her attempt to end her life. We listened as she told us about her recovery and finding herself again. She shared with her the secret to her happiness. Now please join Skyler in teaching me how to become a better person.
The Answer To It All
"I've got the answer," Skyler says, grinning. "In order to become a better person, you have to destroy the person you are."
"That doesn't sound easy," I respond. "Or pleasant."
"No," she says. "It's not. But you have to. You can't change and stay the same. You can't think you want to be a better person and then not better the things you don't like."
"So how do you do it? How do you destroy yourself and become a better person? Surely almost dying isn't the only answer?" I say.
Skyler laughs and gives me another piece of paper. Another list.
How To Become A Better Person
- Figure out who you are.
- Figure out what a better you is.
- Decide if you can become that better you.
"That's it?" I'm skeptical. She nods. "But that doesn't really tell me how to become a better person."
"Sure it does," she says. "What's one thing you think would make you a better person?"
I pause. At first I want to make a joke. Maybe about my weight. But I can tell she wants a serious answer. "Well," I begin. "I guess I could be more compassionate."
I sigh. "Well, I know that I'm sad when I see a family with kids begging for money when I go to the store."
"And do you do something about that?"
"Well, I'm sure they get help."
"How can you be sure?"
"I...," I stop. "I can't."
"So you feel that you're not compassionate enough when you realize that you don't help these families who need money?" she asks me.
"Yes," I say. "But I can't help them all."
"No. No you can't. But you can help. Feeling badly for someone but don't nothing isn't compassionate. You don't have to offer them your house or anything, but maybe stopping and asking 'What do you need today?' is something you can do? Maybe they just need a few dollars to feed the kids or maybe the dad is looking for leads on work. But how can you know if you don't ask?"
"Well, that's true."
"You might not be able to help them. You may not have a few dollars to spare. You may not know where places are hiring. But, you've shown your compassion. You didn't pretend they were invisible. You've acknowledged that you want to help even if you can't. That's something."
"And that makes me a better person," I ask.
"Does it," she quips back to me.
"It could. If I truly want to try to help them."
"There you go. Now you've gotten it. Now, you are on your way to becoming a better person."
"Even if I can't do anything?"
"Because now you know that the father is looking for work. And maybe you drive by a place that's looking for new employees. Before, you may have seen the help sign and not thought anything about it. But now you know someone who is looking for work. So now you can say to the father that you have seen a place that's hiring."
"It's that simple?"
"It can be."
My List of Betterment
So to change for the better, I need to know what better is. I need to decide to take action and do that better thing. Skyler nods, urging me to go on. In order to be better, you have to set clear standards of what you think is better. But it's not all about ethical golden rules. Physical and emotional changes count too. Losing weight, being more patient, dressing differently, finding joy - all of these are things that can make you a better person. So, I took a deep look at myself and made my own list.
- Get into shape.
- Exercise every day.
- Be more patient with my family members.
- Learn to listen more.
- Think before speaking. What I say should matter.
- Spend more time with my dogs and less time needing to be on the computer.
- Finish projects I say I'm going to do.
- Judge less.
- Be more compassionate.
- Eat better.
- Read more.
- Wake up excited for the day.
The list I make goes on and on. I don't think I'm a bad person. But I could be better. I think back to when I was seven - twenty one long years ago. What did I want to be when I grew up? What excitement did I see in the world? Where had I lost that excitement and became jaded? No, I'm not a bad person. I just forgot that I could always be better.
I ask Skyler how I can be a better person with all these things on my list. She tells me that it's not the number of things on my list but my ability to work on the things. Eating better and exercise are easy. There was no reason I couldn't do either if I thought about it. She was right. So, I jumped out of my seat and I did ten jumping jacks. Skyler and I were in hysterics as people around us looked at me like I had gone crazy. But for some reason I didn't care. Skyler smiled and I laughed at how sweaty I got just from ten jumping jacks. It was easy after all. Nothing was stopping me from doing those jumping jacks except for some weird idea that I didn't want to look crazy in front of strangers. But when I did it, I found I didn't mind nearly as much. The truth is, I would probably never see any of these people again. And, to be honest, I liked the idea that maybe I made a few of them smile.
So what about the eating better? Well, Skyler said that one wasn't as easy but still pretty simple. I had to remember that I didn't have to punish myself if I "messed up". If I ate a doughnut instead of oatmeal for breakfast, then I couldn't look at it as failing. Instead, I had to just remind myself that maybe tomorrow oatmeal would be better and maybe for lunch I'll eat home cooked chicken instead of a fast food hamburger. And maybe I will. Eventually it snowballs and I will make healthier eating choices without much thought.
What about the harder stuff? Listening more and talking less? Being more patient? These were harder. I come from a family of people who talk over each other and interrupt. We, very obviously, don't listen to each other. Skyler tells me that instead of being on my phone scrolling while someone is talking, I put the phone down. That will improve my listening skills greatly. Then, when I'm really listening, I'll end up not talking over someone as often. Eventually, I'll learn the art of listening while also deciding what to say. But I'll also learn that someone talking to me isn't the time to think about when I can talk next. It's about absorbing and acknowledging the words the other person is saying. Taking a few moments after they are done talking to form my own thoughts is okay. This will also teach me patience.
It seems many of the things I want to improve on are interconnected. My list isn't individual islands in an ocean of change. Instead, they are pathways that all lead to the same place. Skyler's most important advice was this: It's not about failing or winning. You can't fail if you are trying to change yourself. You only fail if you decide not to do anything.
Skyler and I talked some more, going off subject and then circling back to becoming better people. She told me that running five miles every day was something she did to get peace back into her mind. Running cleared all of the doubt and anxiety she still had. She also ran when she felt the twang of urge to go back to her old life. It's been most of a decade since she last touched drugs or alcohol. The last day was way back the day she shot herself. She never did hook up with her old party friends again. Instead, she and her parents moved out of their house and across the country. Yes, even though they were divorced, both parents moved. Her father brought his new wife and their little daughter. They bought a house just a few blocks from the one Skyler's mother bought. It wasn't as awkward as you'd think. Instead, Skyler discovered that she had a strong support group. Her new step mother was actually a very pleasant person who Skyler found a friend in. Her mother eventually remarried as well. She laughed as she described how her father and step father were like old fishing buddies. They were best of friends. She admitted that it was a bit weird and they had quite the "bromance" going on.
Skyler also shared with me that she recently became engaged and was thrilled at the thought of starting her own family. She also said that she wanted me to know that her life wasn't all roses. She still suffered from anxiety and had problems sleeping. She still sometimes felt the world crushing in on her. She told me that her fiance has been extremely supportive of her and has many times rescued her from being crushed under emotions.
"It's just a day at a time, but not in a way that is a burden. I am constantly reminded by my friends and family that I have not failed. I have never failed. Instead, even on my bad days, I have succeeded. I've come so very far."
She reached for my hand as we gathered our things to part ways. She didn't say anything to me then but I left her feeling all the hope in the world in the ghost of her grip. Somehow, that energy that surrounded her when we first met had transferred to me. Somehow, she had made me a better person just by being near her. I hope in the coming weeks I'll be able to cross things off my list to becoming a better person. She is my inspiration.
This concludes our time with Skyler. She really is an amazing person. Passing her on the street would never reveal the things she went through, but you would see the strong, incredible woman she has become. I couldn't transcribe everything she and I talked about, I do hope that her story and her advice gives you something to think about. Please feel free to comment below how her story made you feel. Will you be making your own list to work on? I know I'm working on mine every day.
© 2017 Anne Ryefield