I’ll get briefly personal on behalf of someone else: my uncle. He and my aunt are lucky enough to have jobs that they find meaningful. She’s an artist/small-time actress, and he’s a carpenter. A terrific woodworker, actually. He’s done our kitchen and my parents’ closets, and made us an awesome dining room cabinet. However, it can be expensive to do what you love, and making a living is becoming tighter for him. Recently, my mom had him come over to widen our doors (so we could install a washing machine). It took a lot of work, but at the end he didn’t want to be paid, saying that he’d done it as a favor to family.
Of course, my mother wouldn’t accept this, and repeatedly tried to get him to take money, which he repeatedly refused. Things got really awkward as it became apparent that she was going to cry over his financial situation, and he finally accepted thirty dollars for gas, then got the hell out of our house. She followed to the door, still trying to increase his earnings, and finally watched morosely as he got into his car to drive off.
“Look happier,” I told her, “for him.”
“But I’m not happy,” she told me, “I’m sad!”
“Believe me, everybody knows that,” I said. “But you either need to look happy for him right now, or leave so he can’t see your face. You’re making him feel bad.”
“How?” she asked, defensively. “How??”
What followed was an annoying debate. My mother believed I was attacking her for no reason, and that I was cold-hearted for not jumping on board to help family members in need. How could I not understand how upsetting the situation was? Why wouldn’t I want to help?
“But you aren’t helping. You made everything worse, and you can’t understand that because you’re only thinking of yourself,” I said, then immediately backpedaled to explain myself as a wave of hurt indignation crossed her face.
Her indignation was partially correct. Of course she wasn’t only thinking of herself. The only reason she was upset in the first place was because of someone else’s suffering. The fact that she was near tears over someone else refusing to take her money should have been evidence enough that she was thinking of others, not herself.
But it wasn’t, at least not completely.
My mother gave me my empathic distress. She feels deeply for people and their situations, and is always looking to help others. Unfortunately, along the way she gets so wrapped up in what she imagines they must be feeling, the emotions take over her dealings. Few things will make you feel worse about your situation than having someone cry over it for you, tell you how you must be feeling about it, and openly pity you. The way my mother went about trying to pay my uncle for his work, she made it seem as though we’d been using him purely out of pity, because we felt sorry for the sad man we thought he must be. The longer she pleaded with him, the less it seemed like she actually appreciated his craftsmanship. We all knew her true intentions, but they became irrelevant, and the whole thing was embarrassing (I even left the room, pretending to be ignorant of the situation for his sake). She was too wrapped up in her own emotions to see it.
* * * * * *
I used to think I wanted to join the Peace Corps; to some extent, I still do. I don’t know what I want to do with my life, and because up until recently I’ve placed very little value on my life, I decided to give it value by helping others. I even flirted with the idea of joining the United Nations, until reading too many stories of their peacekeeping troops’ inaction during times of crisis turned me off. The Peace Corps seemed like a better alternative, especially after hearing my mom’s stories from when she was a volunteer. Teaching? Dam projects to create electricity? Actually doing things? I didn’t even bother me to learn that her group got kicked out of their country after one member tried to galvanize citizens against the corruption in their government.
Then I read “To Hell With Good Intentions”, and my entire perception was rocked. It made me examine my mother’s story more closely. Did anyone listen to the guy who spoke against the government? And what happened if they did? A few weeks ago, at least forty people were killed in the DRC after they attempted a coup, with sticks. Everything about that last sentence was wrong.
The Peace Corps was kicked out, yes, and isn’t allowed back. Their foreign (and largely white) privilege protected them from facing any real punishment. They got to go home, feeling good for helping other, less fortunate people, but what did they leave behind?
When I help people, I want it to stick. I don’t want to go somewhere for a couple months or years, ignorantly change other people’s lifestyles in ways that I judge to be correct, and then happily leave everyone behind, struggling to get by with what I’ve left them. I can’t trust my judgement that much, especially as an outsider. Me telling people what they need would not be so different from my mother telling people what they’re feeling; in both cases, the agency is being taken from the supposed subjects, and the focus and power are given to the supposed helper.
It’s not about the helpers. It’s not about what I think will be better, or what I want done immediately. It’s about what’s necessary, possible, and will continue to help people after I’ve gone. Knowing the vice of Helper’s Absorption, how can I avoid it? I guess by trying to go where I know I’m needed, and staying until I know I am not. This would mean leaving the judgement of what’s needed up to the people actually familiar with the situation. It wouldn’t mean ignoring my own moral compass, or shutting out my own ideas and innovations, but I hope it would at least leave agency in the possession of the people who need it the most. Not like this will be some simple thing to do, but I’m determined to do it.
And when I help people, I hope you won’t know about it through me. People who help for the bragging rights are only helping themselves.
Everyone should go read “The Poisonwood Bible”.