It gives me a sense of connection and purpose I don’t feel when it’s just for myself.
My grandmother has always been the bookish and introverted type, so as a young child we didn’t really connect. She also lived in an entirely different state, so it wasn’t easy to stay in touch.
Yet, at the onset of shelter in place, I found myself almost instinctively booking a flight to her home in Washington state.
As a single mother with a child suddenly out of school, I knew I would need the support of my family in order to continue working.
I’m blessed to be able to work from home during this time, but juggling care for my sensitive son with a normal workload felt daunting.
After an eerie plane ride on an almost empty flight, my son and I found ourselves at our family home with two giant suitcases and an indefinite departure date.
Welcome to the new normal.
The first couple of weeks were bumpy. Like many parents, I rushed back and forth between my computer and my son’s printed “homeschool” pages, trying to make sure he was getting at least some semblance of positive input to balance out the inordinate amount of screen time.
Unlike many parents, I am lucky enough to have my own parents to step in to play board games, ride bikes, or do a gardening project. I’m thanking my lucky stars for my family right now.
When the weekend rolled around, we all had some time to breathe.
My thoughts turned to my grandmother, whose home we had suddenly occupied. She’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and I know the adjustment hasn’t been easy for her, either.
I joined her in her bedroom where she spends most of her time watching the news and petting her lap dog, Roxy. I settled in on the floor next to her recliner and started with small talk, which evolved into questions about her past, her life, and how she sees things now.
Eventually, our conversation wandered to her bookshelf.
I asked her if she’d been doing any reading lately, knowing it’s one of her favorite pastimes. She answered no, that she hadn’t been able to read for the last few years.
My heart sunk for her.
Then I asked, “Would you like me to read to you?”
She lit up in a way I had never seen before. And so began our new ritual of one chapter a night before bed.
We looked through her books and agreed on “The Help.” I’d been wanting to read it, but hadn’t found much time for leisure reading in pre-quarantine life. I read her the summary on the back and she was on board.
The next day, I joined my grandmother in her bedroom again. I asked her what she thought about the virus and all the nonessential stores being closed.
“Virus? What virus?”
I knew for a fact that she’d been watching the news nonstop since we arrived. Every time I passed her door, I saw the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” scrolling across the ticker.
I made an attempt at explaining it, but it didn’t last long. It was clear she had no recollection.
On the other hand, she hadn’t forgotten our reading session the night before.
“I’ve been looking forward to it all day,” she said. “It’s real nice of you.”
I was touched. It seemed that, though she was constantly inundated with information, nothing stuck. As soon as she had something personal, human, and real to look forward to, she remembered.
After reading to her that night, I realized that it was the first time since I had arrived that I didn’t feel stressed or anxious. I felt at peace, my heart full.
Helping her was helping me.
I’ve experienced this phenomenon in other ways as well. As a yoga and meditation instructor, I often find that teaching calming techniques to my students helps me to de-stress right along with them, even when practicing on my own doesn’t.
There’s something about sharing with others that gives me a sense of connection and purpose that I can’t get from simply doing it for myself.
I found this to be true when I taught preschool and had to focus on the kids for hours at a time, sometimes even foregoing bathroom breaks in order to keep our classroom ratios balanced.
While I don’t advocate holding it for extended periods of time, I did learn how, in many cases, letting go of my own personal interests helped me to heal.
After laughing and playing with the kids for hours — essentially getting to be a kid myself — I found I had barely spent any time thinking about my own problems. I didn’t have time to be self-critical or let my mind wander.
If I did, the kids brought me back instantly by splattering paint on the floor, knocking over a chair, or filling yet another diaper. It was the best meditation practice I’ve ever experienced.
As soon as I felt the collective anxiety of COVID-19, I decided to start offering free meditation and relaxation practices to whoever wanted to take them.
I didn’t do it because I’m Mother Theresa. I did it because it helps me just as much, if not more, than it helps those I teach. While I’m no saint, I do hope that through this exchange I’m imparting at least a little peace to those who join me.
Life has taught me over and over again that when I orient myself toward serving others in whatever I do, I experience greater joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
When I forget that every moment can be a way to serve, I get caught up in my own complaints about how I think things should be.
To be honest, my own opinions, thoughts, and criticisms of the world are not all that interesting or pleasant for me to focus on. Focusing on things outside myself, especially focusing on serving others, simply feels better.
This collective experience has been a major reflection to me that I haven’t been as oriented toward service in my life as I would like to be.
It’s easy and very human to get distracted by the day to day and to focus on my own needs, wants, and desires to the exclusion of my broader community and the human family.
I personally needed a wake up call right now. Quarantine has held up a mirror for me. When I saw my reflection, I saw that there was room to recommit to my values.
I’m not implying that I think I should drop everything and start doing favors for everyone. I have to meet my needs and respect my own boundaries to truly be of service.
But more and more, I’m remembering to ask myself throughout the day, “How can this small act be an act of service?”
Whether it’s cooking for the family, washing the dishes, helping my dad in his garden, or reading to my grandmother, each is an opportunity to give.
When I give of myself, I am embodying the person I want to be.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for anxiety through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.