Drinking The Kool-Aid

The day of my Nana’s funeral was the first time I saw my father cry. It was a shock to me, which is probably why I remember it so vividly. That, and the incident with the kool-aid.

After the funeral, relatives and friends gathered at our house. For us kids, it was like the best party ever – my dad’s sister Rosie’s nine kids were there, five or six of us (can’t remember which siblings had been born by then) and other assorted cousins and kids. We were playing outside, running around sweaty and thirsty and begging for something to drink. So my dad made a pitcher of kool-aid. But as we stood in a line on the back porch ten or so kids realized at the same moment that something was terribly wrong. The kool-aid was beyond tart. Dad had forgotten to add sugar. I remember suggesting we should just go ahead and drink it, rather than bother my Dad with our complaint. That idea was vetoed by the other kids. But I couldn’t get the image of my father’s grief out of my head. It seemed like the most thoughtful thing I could do was drink that terrible, sugarless, beverage.

In November of 1978, when I was 17, Jim Jones and members of his People’s Church committed mass suicide in Guyana by drinking poisoned kool-aid. This is the origin of the phrase, “drinking the kool-aid”, generally meaning blind, uncritical faith in a leader. I am not using the phrase in this sense, though perhaps my use is a distant relative. Instead, I am talking about those times in life when what is before us is a decision to either do or not do a bitter, unsweetened thing. Sometimes, like on the day of my Nana’s funeral, we want to be kind and thoughtful, but there will be no true benefit for anyone if we drink (though there may be real cost involved). At other times, we do the hard or bitter task because the benefit to others outweighs the cost to us. Learning to differentiate between these two types of occasions is an art form.

How do you know, when circumstances are murky or clouded by emotion, whether or not to drink the cup set before you? How much effort do you put forth for others in your life? How many contortions do you make in your day to do what you think someone else wants or needs? These are difficult, sometimes gut-wrenching questions.

I’ve developed a few guidelines that are, I think, serving me pretty well.  They were developed after years in which I often found myself bitter because I was making the effort to drink the kool-aid, yet it was going unnoticed and/or unappreciated by the person for whom my effort was expended.

  • First, I have to ask myself: Do I have a hidden agenda? Do I want to do this as an expression of my care for the other, or is it an attempt to “make” another person love me, appreciate me, beholden to me? Believe me when I say this is one of the hardest questions I regularly ask myself. It is hard because I want to lie to myself. I want to say, every time, that I am only thinking of someone else’s happiness. I want bluebirds to fly out of my mouth because my soul is just that pure. However, if I am drinking from the bitter cup because of a hidden agenda, the bitterness becomes palpable in my reactions to the other person. Ever hear of a martry complex? I am susceptible to this failing, and I truly hate seeing it in myself – so much so that I’d rather be honest with myself about my agenda!
  • Another important question: Will my doing this be meaningful to the other person? I have been known to go to every store in town to get the exact gift I think will be perfect for someone. This is a process which gives me happiness, and whether the other person ever sees or knows the effort is incidental to my enjoyment. I am motivated by my love and the sheer joy of expressing it in this manner, and I can sense those lovely little bluebirds flitting around my altruistic head. There are times, however, when a desire to please becomes a crazed nightmare. One time a friend who rarely asks for help told me she was feeling overwhelmed and could use some help that would necessitate my availability for a Saturday. I was scheduled to work that Saturday, but didn’t want to say no in my friend’s hour of need. I rearranged my schedule, calling in favors and making deals with several other people in order to be free to help my friend. Saturday morning, just as I was donning my superhero cape, my friend called to say that she had changed her plans and didn’t need me after all. My ego was deflated, I was angry, and my feelings were hurt. Didn’t she realize the effort it took to come to her rescue?! But the failure was mine – I hadn’t been honest (“Oh, no, I’m free on Saturday”), I hadn’t been direct (“I am scheduled to work, but if this is really important to you, I’ll make some calls and switch things around”) and I hadn’t asked myself whether I had a hidden agenda (SuperJenion to the rescue!).
  • A final question that I’ve learned to ask is: Does this really matter to ME, or am I doing it because I think I SHOULD? If the answer is that it matters to me, great. I do it. If the answer is “because I should”, I need to dig a little deeper. So the next question needs to be: Why should II am not one of those people who advocate never doing things because we think we should. There are times we SHOULD suck it up and do things, whether or not we want to or they are meaningful to us, because they matter to others to whom we are committed. If this is one of those moments, knowing it goes a long way in adjusting my attitude toward the positive. But sometimes I say “I should” when the reality is it doesn’t matter. That “should” is coming from a place of insecurity – I am afraid that someone else will be angry or not love me if I don’t say yes. So, I drink the stanky kool-aid from a place of fear. I’m the only one who thinks drinking it is a sign of love. Often, no one else really even notices what I agonized over. And then, we’re right back to that icky martyr complex.

The story of the kool-aid that wasn’t “cool” has become a legend in our family. Told and re-told with mirth over the years. For me, it is a reminder that sometimes our kinder impulses can lead us to make empty gestures. All of the adults, including my Dad, found humor in the reactions of their children to the sugarless kool-aid. I needn’t have worried so much about further burdening him in his grief, nor did I need to be the lone child choking down a glass of foul liquid. In my adult life, being clear with myself about my motives and the actual needs of my loved ones, instead of acting from misplaced obligation, insecurity, or hidden agendas has saved me from a great deal of bitterness and martyr-ing. Besides, I’m sure we can agree, a nice cold glass of sweet kool-aid with loved ones after shared effort is truly good for the soul – and what it was all about in the first place!

6 thoughts on “Drinking The Kool-Aid

  1. Wow- I had totally forgotten about this story!

    One thing I would add to your list of excellent questions is: Is there a moral imperative here? I might phrase it, “What does Gos desire me to do?” There are times that this requirement outweighs some of the others.

    1. “Is there a moral imperative here?” Yes, I couldn’t think of the right way to say it, but this is what I meant when I said there are times when of course you should do something! Thanks for the both ways you worded it (even though you said Gos, I knew Whom you meant!).

  2. This is one of my favorite posts you’ve written, Jen. I think I’ll print your list of questions and keep it close – I couldn’t have said it as well… and honestly, I probably couldn’t have thought it as well, either. Sometimes you amaze me. 🙂

  3. Great discussion of questions, Jen . . . and I laughed once again (for maybe the 30th time?) remembering the Kool-aid.


    1. Have I mentioned recently how much I love you, Pop? If not, I’m saying it now – Shirlee, you too 🙂 You two are the best!

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