Giving from an empty cup/How not to die
“Offer it Up”
You must have an empty cup my sister
You must have an empty cup
You have given to everyone but yourself and
Your cup is now empty
We are going to work on making sure that your cup remains full so that when you are giving, you give from your saucer. That is your overflow. Your excess. Never give from your cup because when your cup is empty, so are you. You can’t empty your cup and expect to remain whole.
— Yetta Young — Butterfly Confessions
Scraping that empty cup
As women of color striving to get through our daily lives with our dignity, humanity, sense of joy and meaning intact, to take care of our communities and the people we love, and to make an impact in the context of a society that does so much to devalue, hurt and erase us — caring for ourselves and letting others care for us can seem like a luxury that needs to be left for “later.”
The current urgencies we face have been around for a long time. With so much at stake, and being constantly under attack, we may find ourselves devastatingly empty before we even begin to notice that we have nothing left to give.
An empty cup, and the scraping sound when more is given or taken away, may become so familiar we don’t always notice it, or recognize that it could be otherwise. Giving from an empty cup can start to seem like just the way things are — oppressive and harmful, but so familiar we are blind to how eroding it is to our ability to thrive, and even just to survive. Sometimes we just don’t know what it feels like, or that it is even possible, for our own cups to be filled.
And this isn’t new. Women of color have been asked to give from empty cups in this country for generations. As Crunk Feminist Collective writes in “How to not die: some survival tips for black women who are asked to do too much”:
I worry that our foremothers were worked to death. I worry that they didn’t see death coming because they were too busy taking care of other things. I worry that they had too much to do and ran out of time. I worry that they didn’t get to see themselves as celebrated and loved and worthy of celebration and love. I worry that they worked too much, too hard, and for too little pay. I worry that people saw them as strongblackwomen and forgot to see them as human. I worry that our jobs, our families, our friends, and sometimes our supporters expect too much and we expect too little.
If we want to honor these women who came before us and everything they gave from their own depleted cups, we need to first remember that as strong, as brilliant, as loving, and as powerful as we may be, we weren’t built to be superheroes — we were built to be human.
“We were built to be human”
Take a breath. Do you hear that? We were built to be human. Beautiful and messy, and with our own limits and strengths and needs that make us who we are. With our own cups that need to be filled if we want to remain whole.
If we want to remain whole, we need to recognize that even when we see the deep urgency of everything that needs to be done, and changed, and fought for in our world; even when we see this with greater clarity than many of the more privileged people around us; and even when we know we have so much to give — it just isn’t possible for any one of us to take all of this on. Knowing and respecting our own limits doesn’t take away from our ability to give in a meaningful way, it actually adds to it, since if we start from a place of feeling whole and feeling nourished, we will bring this to all the work we choose to share with others.
How can we do that? What does it look like, and feel like, for our cups to start to fill up? For us to have enough, and to even begin to have some overflow to share with others without harming ourselves? For us to fight injustice in the world, “starting with our own lives”?
Noticing the empty cup
It means noticing what it feels like when people in our lives are taking from us without knowing how to give in return, or even how to receive what we’re giving with respect and gratitude. When they are gulping with their mouths open, letting what we have to share drop to the ground. Notice that feeling, and when it starts, that may be a time to set a limit. Others aren’t entitled to the gifts in our cups, entitled though they may feel and behave. Only give from your overflow, and practice saying no when others are asking too much.
There may of course be moments when no matter what limits and boundaries you try to put up, the situation is just out of your control. In those spaces, trust yourself, love yourself, absorb all the little ounces and moments of gifts that try to come back to you. Truly take them in and breathe them in and make it to that next day. You may not always be in a position where you can open your mouth to produce certain words, but do try to turn your love inwards and it will guide you, pull you, drive you, to that place you need to get to. Music, art, pictures, prayers… all kinds of different things can help you connect to the love in you and guide your way. And even if it still hurts when you are in it, being able to notice the empty cup means that you can start to find things to heal and fill that cup.
Filling our (own and each other’s) cups
So what does filling look like? Sometimes it may mean giving ourselves space to just collapse. To fall apart and collapse into pieces, and not have to worry about holding everything together. To let go, trusting that we’ll be able to come back together again when we need to, and letting others we trust hold space for us in the meantime.
It may mean genuinely letting ourselves feel the impact of what we’ve been facing in our own lives and histories, including the trauma of living in a racist society; noticing the way this reverberates in our bodies, minds and hearts; and meeting ourselves with deep, real compassion for these experiences. The trauma is real, and recognizing this can feel like a state of mourning, of grieving. But letting ourselves grieve is part of letting our cups begin to fill.
It also means letting people in. We don’t have to carry all of this on our own. Sometimes we settle into that pain alone and further isolate ourselves. We don’t want to be viewed as strong rather than human but, especially as Black Women, we don’t truly believe that vulnerability is strength. Struggling in isolation can leave us drowning on our own when we don’t need to be. We need to start letting people (that we trust) in. At some point every one of us will need someone to help us navigate these moments, and there is no shame in asking for or receiving help.
Our love is powerful. It moves the world. It shakes the world. It heals the world. Our love is not only valuable when it is for someone or something else. Filling our cups means gathering our invaluable force, our focus, our love back towards ourselves and into our empty cups. Engage with the world from that starting point. Start not with what contributions can my love make to you, but what contributions can my love make to me? What from this interaction actually helps fill me back up?
Filling our cups can mean filling our actual cups, too — being sure we are eating, and drinking, and taking care of our bodies in ways that help us feel nourished and restored and alive. If we are too depleted to shop or to cook, it may mean asking a friend to bring us a meal, or to order in together and just be in each other’s presence, talking or not talking; filling up together.
And it should definitely mean surrounding ourselves with people we love and trust, who love us and celebrate us and affirm us not only when we’re feeling strong and joyful but also when we’re feeling vulnerable, or angry, or depleted, or lost. People who hold all these pieces of ourselves in their minds and hearts, and who love us for the whole of who we are. Because that’s what it means to be human beings together, and being human beings together and being in community is how healing begins.