Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Getting By With A Little Help

I once gave a talk to the graduating class at the University of Kansas School of Social Work. I identified myself as a “recovering social worker.” What I meant was that I had brought to consciousness some of the less than admirable reasons why I myself had become a social worker thirty years earlier. I’d wanted to earn my right to take up space on the planet by being useful to others; I’d wanted to rescue others (this reflected in an early poem I’d written with the opening line, “If you would just let me save your life, perhaps it would not hurt so much to know I cannot save my own.”) and – as an extension of these two reasons- I’d wanted to save the world. Sigh. Oh yes, and I’d found that focusing on other people’s problems and dramas distracted me from my own messes and unhappiness. Sigh again.

Now I wasn’t trying to discourage these budding professional helpers. I was just trying to point out that it might be useful to do a little self-examination and see what shadow (as in unknown) motives they might uncover. I assured them that the degree to which they could be effective “helpers” depended in part, on their willingness to know and own their own darker reasons for wanting to help. I wasn’t negating the hopefully very real possibility that we all offer help to others at least in part because we were genuinely compassionate. I was just suggesting that that might not be the whole story. Certainly they weren’t becoming social workers for the prestige or the money.

I haven't been social worker for years, but I'm often in a position of counselling or helping others. I continue to examine my motives and try to bring to consciousness any agenda I may have in helping. But all of this raises another question: Can we really help each other? And, if so, what does useful help look like? Even in the area of emergency physical assistance where needs seem obvious, there are still questions about what kind of help is best and how it can be delivered most effectively for long term good.

I think of my experiences as a recipient of others' assistance, and I find a few things have been consistently true for me when I have received offered help. So here are my observations about what is and is not helpful:

Advice that is not asked for is rarely helpful and often feels like a judgement rather than support. Even when requested, advice is only helpful when it is qualified by knowledge of the giver’s limited view (as in, “ignore this if it doesn’t speak to you”) and based in experience.

Platitudes, no matter how true, rarely penetrate the dark shell of despair. Telling someone it’s all about unconditional love or that the only thing that matters is friends and family just rolls off the back of real grief, anger or terror. The possible exception to this is when the platitudes are put to music. So, if you must, hum a few bars of the Beatles’ “Love is all there is,” don’t say it. Similarly religious or spiritual “truths” that are abstract are best kept to a minimum. Telling someone they must “learn to be unattached” when they are experiencing the pain of loss is not helpful.

I have been helped by many: those who could listen without judgement; those who could speak from their own experience; those who could just sit with me in our common human struggles; those who were good at creating a container where I could express my vulnerability (a couple of wonderful therapists come to mind); those who could laugh and cry at the same time; those who made me a cup of tea; those who would allow others to help them when they were in need; those who could work with me instead of simply for me; those who offered what they could without depleting themselves or putting themselves at risk.

So the next time you need help, it might be good to pause and consider what kind of help you need and who is likely to be able to provide it. And the next time you want to help another, it might be wise to pause and reflect on and ask about what kind of help might be useful (making suggestions is okay- sometimes when we are in dire need we don’t know what would help. ) Considering what your unconscious motives may be can avoid causing unintended harm to yourself or another.

It shows great strength and self-knowledge to ask for and receive the help you need. Mostly what we have to offer each other is our presence, our open-hearted willingness to sit in the messiness of being human together and lend each other a little courage and faith when one of us is feeling that courage and faith are hard to find. While it is true that we each have our own path, that doesn’t mean our lives aren’t enriched by offering and receiving help along the way.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What is Compassion?

Recently, a woman I met told me about her daughter who is living in South America. Her daughter is being threatened by a powerful crime family for setting up a business in their geographic area. The mother said, “I just told her, when the universe knocks you around it’s because you need to be knocked around. It’s to make you stronger for something coming down the road. You have to take it!”

I wanted to argue with the ideas implicit in her statements –that the universe is deliberately harsh and punishing, that human beings only learn and become strong from hardship and, by inference, that helping others might interfere with the difficulties they “need.” But I could feel my reactivity, and I was guessing this wasn’t about rational arguments. Eventually, as judgement gave way to inquiry, I wondered what had prompted the woman’s comment to her daughter. Was she distancing herself from her daughter’s difficult and dangerous situation? Was she trying to move away from her fear for her daughter? Maybe she’s afraid her worry will swallow her whole. Her daughter is a long way away. There’s little she can do to help her. Or maybe it’s how she’s made sense of the difficulties in her own life- by taking the meaning she’s made of her own hardships and turning it into the causal reason for why these difficulties were “needed.”

We all do what we can to cope with challenges, to lower our anxiety to a point where we can function (which is why James Hollis’ idea that maturity means increasing our capacity to tolerate anxiety is so challenging.) Compassion can be difficult because being with suffering often does increase our anxiety. It’s not just about being kind, although when we’re compassionate, kindness comes easily. It’s not about rescuing, although certainly being compassionate prompts us to offer what help we can when others are in need and we have something to offer.

Compassion comes from the Latin com- to be with, and passion- suffering. To be compassionate is to be with another’s or our own suffering. To be with suffering, to feel its raw edges, its jagged breathing, its sobbing gulps for air- this is hard. To hold ourselves or another, without words, without explanations or justification. To match our breath to the breath of the one who suffers beside us or within us. To sit close and rock as they rock because the movement soothes. That’s compassion, and that can be difficult, particularly when we love the one who is suffering.

I think of my own sons and how I would feel if they were thousands of miles away in a dangerous situation. And it’s almost too much to be with this woman or the many other mothers and fathers in the world whose sons and daughters are in danger, to allow myself to be touched by their anxiety, to have my anxiety for our children stirred, to understand why this woman might have made a response that sounded harsh to me.

I sit and imagine our hearts breathing together. This meditation does not replace offering practical help where I am able. Practical help can be compassion in action. Still, I think the "being with" helps too. I have faith that this willingness can ease the suffering a little.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Starting Without Fear

A while ago, at the Royal Ontario Museum I went to the public restroom. Just before I came out of the stall I heard a high clear voice say, “Who’s going to get me soap?”
I walked out and saw a little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, the arms of her white sweatshirt rolled up as she stood at the sink. She couldn’t reach the soap dispenser. I wasn’t sure to whom she had addressed the question. The room was empty except for the two of us.

“I can help with that,” I said and proceeded to offer her soap from my hands.

“What’s your name?” she asked as she scooped up some of the foam.

Seeing she couldn’t reach the faucet I pressed it down for her and replied, “Oriah.”

“I’m Dakota,” she offered promptly.

“Hi, Dakota.” She nodded and proceeded to rub her hands under the flowing water.

“And how many years old are you?” she asked in a matter of fact voice.

“Fifty-five,” I replied. She frowned a little and then held up four fingers. “Ah,” I said, “and you are four years old.” She nodded and moved over to the hand dryer putting her hands under the warm air. My own hands now washed and dried, I headed for the door.

"Good-bye Dakota. Nice to meet you.” She smiled and waved good-bye.

Just outside the doorway, a young man stood waiting. “I bet you’re waiting for Dakota.” He smiled and nodded, and I assured him she would be right out.

The incident could not have lasted more than three or four minutes but I keep going over it in my mind and smiling, wondering why it touched me so. Physically Dakota reminded me of myself at that age- I was also slight, blonde and blue-eyed. But Dakota was so at home in her own skin, it took my breath away. She was not trying to be precocious, or ingratiating or demanding. She needed soap and she couldn’t get any so she wondered out loud who was going to help her, and seemed to take my appearance as a reasonable answer to her question. She was confident but aware of her own limitations. She was curious but not invasive, willing to give whatever information she asked of the other. She was. . . . whole and at home with herself and the world in way I could not remember being as a child.

Thinking about Dakota I remember being the same age and visiting Buffalo NY to shop at Grant’s Department Store with my family. It was 1958, and I was carrying a small pink purse. As my grandmother and I waited for my grandfather at the entrance of the store, an elderly black gentleman walked up and squatted down in front of me smiling. I heard Nana gasp and felt her suddenly grab me and pull me back against her as she stepped away. I could feel the fear coursing through her body hitting mine like an electric shock. The gentleman looked up at her. His smile faded and he slowly shook his head as he held out my purse.

“Your little girl dropped this,” he said. He looked so tired and so sad I felt like crying, but I didn’t know why. I wanted to say something, but he quickly got up and walked away. I felt confused and embarrassed for my grandmother who just stood there, her body rigid, her arm across my chest pressing me against her.

Dakota was not afraid. I have no doubt that if anyone tried to harm her she could fight and yell for assistance very effectively. And of course she was too young to be there alone, and her guardian was close by. But she did not start from a place of fear. She did not expect me to be anything but helpful. No one had yet taught her to be afraid of everyone she did not know. My grandmother had been taught to be afraid of strangers, and a racist culture has taught her to be afraid of people- particularly men- of colour. I have been privileged to live in a city of such multi-cultural diversity that many of the fears she passed from her body to mine have been expunged and healed. But I remember them and how they affected me, how they put up a barrier to the other.

Encountering Dakota made me feel hopeful. Maybe we can raise children who do not approach unknown people or places or ways of being with fear and hostility. And maybe, if we do not meet the stranger with fear, we can get to know each other a little, can find ways to live and work together.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Resisting What We Want

I’m not writing. Well, clearly I am writing- but I’m not doing the writing I want to do. I’m not writing the novel I want to write, the novel that may or may not be half written (depending on whether or not the pile of pages I set down two years ago is still the story that wants to be told.) I’m feeling well physically, my year-end financial books are done, the filing cabinets have been cleaned out, and the website’s been revamped. I’ve had my dental check up and teeth cleaning, my bills have been paid and the oil in my car has been change.

And still, I am not doing the writing I want to do. I write my dreams, I write the blogs, I write in my journal and I post on FB. I answer emails, send out correspondence, write lists and post-it note reminders. But I am not writing fiction. So, what’s the problem?

I’m not sure, but when I’m not worried about it, I am curious. Procrastination has rarely been my problem. More often, when in doubt I take action, and only in hindsight can I see that at least some of the time it might have been wise to pause, to wait, to take my time before acting. This isn’t procrastination, a putting off of something unpleasant, or a pause. It’s resistance to something I want to do. It’s a feeling of inner conflict, of having one foot on the brake and one on the gas. Of course, that can’t go on forever without burning out either the engine or the brakes or both.

This of course is not an uncommon problem. A talented artist I know tells me every time I see him how he must get back to his painting, but clearly he is finding it hard to do so. A friend who can do what seems impossible to me (compose music) finds it hard to get her work into a form she can share with the world- something she knows is important to her if her music is going to develop.

Sometimes we don’t act because the timing is off, we lack the necessary energy or clarity. But sometimes, we just need to acknowledge the resistance and keep walking into the thing that calls our name. Resistance is the ego sensing danger. Engaging in creative work involves taking new risks, entering uncharted territory that mayl change us in unpredictable ways. Change threatens our carefully crafted identity and strategies for preserving the ego’s illusion of control. So, with an inner ear unavoidably hearing the anxiety ("what if it’s awful, what if you fail, why not stick to what you know, what about paying the bills. . . . ?) I put one foot, or in this case one finger, in front of the other and begin.

She blinked and turned away from the computer screen, suddenly drawn to the cloudless blue sky visible through the high windows. For a moment she sat still, and something inside her shifted. Without really knowing it, she had crossed a line.

There was no hesitation in her movement, nor was there any hurry. Even before she had moved forward it was already too late to turn back. She opened the bottom right hand drawer of her desk and took out her brown leather purse. She pushed back her chair and stood up, turning away from her desk. Later, no one could remember seeing her leave. It was all done so quietly, which in itself was unusual. She was not known for being particularly quiet. Anyone who may have looked up from their work station as she passed would have thought she was simply on her way to the restroom. If they’d noticed the absence of her usual greeting or offhand remark they would have simply assumed that she was, as they were, in the midst of a busy work day, preoccupied with impending deadlines. They could not have guessed that she was moving away from deadlines, leaving them dangling with a breath-taking and uncharacteristic lack of concern for consequences or explanations.

Later, when her co-workers passed her desk on their way home, they assumed she was elsewhere in the building. Her computer was on, the screen saver hurtling stars from infinite space toward the viewer. A pad of paper on the desk was covered with a list of tasks to be finished by the end of the day. The pen that had been used to write the list, an elegant old-fashioned fountain pen- a gift from a friend the previous Christmas- lay uncapped across the words written in indigo ink. Her sweater, a practical acrylic-wool blend in dark grey kept on hand to ward off the chill when the building’s air conditioning got over-enthused, hung on the back of her chair. A half cup of cold earl grey tea in a pale blue china cup sat next to her phone.

And it was all there the next morning- the pen, the pad, the cup of tea, and the sweater on the chair. When one of her co-workers clicked the mouse resting next to her keyboard, hoping for clues as to where she was, the movement through star-studded space gave way to a flashing cursor waiting in the middle of an unfinished word. What had, the night before, held the sense of an expected return now looked abandoned. It made others uneasy even as they asked each other, trying to sound casually curious, if anyone knew where she was.