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The Key to Building a Strong Personal Foundation

foundation.jpgIf you are like most Americans, you have obligations to many people: partner, children, parents, boss, friends. Do you ever feel pulled in too many directions? If so, this article is for you.

What I’m about to tell you runs counter to what you may have been taught by society, which encourages the selfless acts of a good Samaritan. While I agree charity is admirable, in fact essential, I am here to tell you that your first job is taking care of yourself.  

Some would scoff at this, calling it selfish. But if you take care of yourself, you will build a stronger core and have more energy to help others. Conversely, if you give your energy away, you will soon be of little use to anyone. In other words, working outward from your core is essential to living a balanced life, and living a balanced life is the first step toward internal fulfillment and external charity.

The Importance of Working Outward from Your Core

I want to tell you a tale of two very different men to illustrate the importance of working outward from your core. The first man is my great grandfather, Leonard. Leonard lived in Brooklyn at the turn of the century with his wife and 5 boys. Leonard was very poor, but his neighbors knew him as a man willing to give the shirt off his back, offering food to others despite his own hunger, helping others despite his own physical weakness and depression. His alcoholism, left untreated, ate away at his core, leaving him weak, emotionally drained, and unable to hold a job. Instead of turning his energies inward and helping himself recover and find work, he spent what little energy he had helping his neighbors. Yes, Leonard had a good heart, but he was unable to support himself or his family. He eventually turned his children out to fend for themselves because he could not afford to feed them.

The other man I want to talk to you about was one of Leonard’s 5 boys, John Henry Place. John Henry left his father Leonard’s house at the age of thirteen. Can you imagine living on the streets at such a young age, completely responsible for your own wellbeing? John Henry had learned by watching his father the importance of staying off the bottle, keeping a job, and taking care of himself. He found work in a nearby bakery, work that suited him and allowed him to survive. Instead of spending his money on alcohol and charity, he saved what little money he could until he was able to open a bakery of his own.

After being in the bakery business for 22 years, John Henry suffered a tragic accident. One day, while feeding dough into the press, one of his arms was drawn into the gears of the machine and crushed between the rollers. The arm had to be amputated. First came the obvious physical pain, followed by the emotional pain that accompanied his realization that he could not run a bakery with one arm. But John Henry had always been a survivor and wasn’t about to throw in the towel. He converted his bakery into a second-hand store and continued making a good living.

Once John Henry had developed a strong emotional identity and financial cushion, he got married and had two sons, Johnnie and Bernard, and despite the challenge of operating an independent store in Depression Era Texas, both sons lived at home until they were ready to leave. Johnnie, my father, made it through high school and went on to obtain a college education at Texas A&M University, whereas Bernard continued to live at home and attended community college. Both enjoyed successful lives with many hard-fought financial and emotional lessons imparted to them by their father.

Just look at the difference between Leonard and John Henry. Both were good-hearted men, and I suspect both were products of their environment. But Leonard believed in taking care of others before he took care of himself – in fact, he hardly took care of himself at all. John Henry, on the other hand, developed a strong core before attempting to extend himself, and this allowed him to give both sons a head start in life. Taking care of himself allowed John Henry to take care of others more effectively.

Building a Strong Personal Foundation 

The fast pace and varied obligations of the modern world mean that prioritization is more important now, for us, than it ever was for Leonard or John Henry. If you want to be useful to other people, you must build a foundation strong enough to support yourself.  If you jeopardize your foundation by giving away or weakening your critical building blocks, it may soon crumble.  

To some people, taking care of yourself means reserving quiet time to pursue interests, while to others it means satisfying physiological needs. Both interpretations facilitate replenishment of your core energies and reduction of stress.

Remember, stress is your core’s way of indicating your obligations exceed your capacities. If you lift a dangerously heavy weight, your muscles cry in pain. Similarly, if you bear a cognitive, emotional, or financial burden beyond your capacities, other forms of stress result.

Momma always told me… 

When I was growing up, my mother was full of sage advice: Don’t put your fingers in the electric socket; Don’t run with scissors; Don’t play in the freeway; Don’t eat too much snack food. Most of this advice was geared toward my physical wellness. It’s too bad I didn’t have someone in my ear as I got older bestowing grown-up advice: Don’t date a girl who is a poor match for you; Don’t spend more money than you have; Try to find a job that matches your capacities. Truth be told, even if someone had warned me, I probably wouldn’t have listened. I was young and needed to make my own mistakes. But the thing to keep in mind is that most sage advice related to taking care of yourself revolves around a very simple concept: Don’t get in over your head; Don’t let your obligations exceed your capacities.

I’m not saying not to take risks.  Nor am I saying that you should never allow yourself to experience stress, an impossibility in any case.  And most importantly, I’m not saying to neglect people to whom you are morally obligated.  What I am saying is that a lifestyle that leaves you perpetually drained cannot be maintained and may eventually render you ineffective in every area of your life.  

You are Reading an Article Series — Rescue Your Life From Stress!

  1. Series Intro: Rescue Your Life From Stress!
  2. Debilitating Stress, a Warning You are Out of Balance
  3. The Key to Building a Strong Personal Foundation
  4. Control Your Spending
  5. The #1 Mistake Consumers Make with Credit Cards
  6. 3 Steps to Reducing Stress Caused by Unnecessary Obligations
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