Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Post 4 of 5: That Was Helpful

Post 4 of 5

Fourth question:

“Do you need help?”

It depends how you define need. 

But before I go into that, I’d like to address the whole issue of charitable service. This is going to be a bit long and rambling. I’ve been developing my thoughts on this subject for at least a decade, but the last couple years have given me an insight into the position of the person in need of service.

Several years ago, a young man shared a quote in Sunday School, which changed the way I saw people and service.  It comes from this article by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., and I highly recommend that you follow the link and read the whole thing. Twice. I have extracted the key ideas:

Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul….

Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality. The danger in helping is that we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity or even wholeness.
When we help, we become aware of our own strength. But when we serve, we don’t serve with our strength; we serve with ourselves, and we draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve; our wounds serve; even our darkness can serve. My pain is the source of my compassion; my woundedness is the key to my empathy….
We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch. Fixing and helping are strategies to repair life. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.

Throughout this post, I'm going to use help and serve as defined above, and when I want to be general I'll say assistance or aid.

In Hallmark movies and Christmas stories, there’s always the out-of-work father or crabby old spinster who proudly declares, “I don’t accept charity.” Most people who are experiencing challenges aren’t so blunt, but no one likes to feel like they’re being condescended to or forced to beg, or that they’ve somehow come up short in their own capacity.  Too often the way in which people offer help creates this feeling of inequality, even if unintentionally. I know it takes a certain kind of humility to ask for help, but that’s not really what I’m referring to. It’s a social inequality; a sense of obligation and inferiority. Most people would rather just deal with it alone than feel that way.

When I am asked if I need help, my thought process is something like, “Of course I could use some help, but do I deserve it?  What will she think about me as a homemaker as she's cleaning up my messes? Will she be disgusted when she sees my mountain of dishes?  What if cleaning my messy apartment is a bigger project than she intended? This woman has a bigger home and more kids and more responsibilities than I do, and although she is healthier than I, she probably has trials I don’t know about. Is my need really that much more than others? How can I justify asking her to take time out of all that to clean my apartment when I spend all day on the couch?"

Rationally, I do understand that the lying on the couch and the not keeping up with the cleaning both result from the fatigue that comes along with my illness. I realize that a person would not expect to find an orderly house if they had been enlisted to come over and clean it, or to have me participate when I need outside help. But when someone comes over to clean, I find myself following them around and helping, instead of sitting down as I should.  Several times, I have pushed myself beyond my exhaustion point, with the effect that I was more wiped out than I would have been if they hadn't come to "give me a break."  That was my fault, not theirs, but I'm just trying to illustrate the feeling of obligation that comes with being helped and fixed.

There is also the issue of accountability and agency: we who have been baptized have covenanted to love and serve one another, and we are accountable for the people around us. It occurs to me that many ways of offering assistance shift the onus of responsibility to the recipient. Make a nonspecific overture of goodwill, and the ball is in their court. “I did offer, but she never took me up on it.” Don’t you think she already has enough on her plate without the obligation to track down the people who may have offered help once? (In my examples I am going to use all feminine pronouns, because most of this type of service happens between women. And when I say "you", I mean it in the hypothetical sense, like the British "one".)

I remember from when I was a new visiting teacher, toward the end of each visit, my companion or I would ask, "Is there anything we could help you with?"  They would respond something like, "Nothing I can think of."  And we'd say, very sincerely, "Well, feel free to call us if you think of something!"

They never called.

I didn't, either, when my visiting teachers did the same thing. Firstly, I only spoke to them once a month, so if I ever needed anything, they didn't even occur to me. Secondly, it's embarrassing to ask for "help".

There are, in my mind, four levels of offering aid, and I've employed all of them at some point or another, and had them used on me, always with good intentions.   

The lowest is the Backhand: “Let us know if there’s ever anything we can do for you” (as she's walking away). It's not even a query; it's an idle command. Her mouth is saying the words, but her behavior is saying that she doesn't even have time to listen to you, let alone help you.

The next step up is, “Do you need help?” or “Could you use some help?” This is more sincere; the offerer is at least waiting to hear an answer. But she might be relieved if that answer was, “No, I’m fine,” because she could carry on, knowing that she had “made the effort.” Plus, this method still puts the receiver in the position of supplicant, trying to decide what might be an appropriately humble request. “How much is she intending to do? What if what I need goes beyond her goodwill?”

“What can I do to help?” or “How can I help you?” is better; it begins with the assumption that you have already agreed to assist the person, putting both parties on even social ground. But I often find that my mind goes blank at the moment someone asks me this question, and not wanting to stand there saying, “um…. well…,” I hastily say, “I’m doing okay;” and later, when I think of what I should have said, I can’t bring myself to call that person up and say, “Actually, I changed my mind…” Call it pride, bashfulness, or both, but it’s embarrassing.

I think the most helpful approach -- one that puts the receiver at ease, conveys a sense of equality, respect, and love, and the assumption of accountability by the server rather than the served -- is to consider the person’s situation, think of something that could be really helpful, and then offer to do it, e.g. “I was wondering if I could help you with your laundry. Would that be of service to you, or is there something else that would be more helpful?” You could even present two ideas. This way, they can either accept gracefully, or thank you for the offer and suggest something they really need.  

Returning to my own situation, when I first got sick, the Relief Society really rose to the occasion: I was given a list of women and girls who were willing to help with cleaning, laundry, or meals. They had even marked what days and times they were available. But after a month or two, I gradually stopped calling them because it was getting to be really complicated and embarrassing to make phone call after phone call trying to find people to fill different time slots, and be like, "Yes, I'm still sick; I'm not just mooching," (not in so many words) and having to be careful not to call the same person too frequently.  It was an exhausting and emotionally draining process. So that was the end of organized help.

Since then, some people have been more proactive.  Several times, sisters at church have spontaneously offered to bring me dinner on a specific day. I really appreciated that. Once or twice somebody has offered to come over and clean, and I have taken them up on it.  The bishop’s wife once showed up unannounced, saying that she had about an hour and a half of free time if she could do anything for me. She served me by cleaning, too.

Those are random acts of kindness. I receive more constant service from my dear mother-in-law, who makes a 75-minute drive here about twice a month. She does all the dishes, cleans the whole apartment, takes Sunbeam outside to play, and often brings lunch, too.  When she leaves, she takes all of our dirty laundry with her, washes, dries, and folds it, and brings it back to us on her next visit. She has been doing this for months -- more than a year, I think.

Do I need more assistance? Well, I did. Actually, we recently hired a part-time house cleaner, just to help us keep up. We like her so far. She can come every few days to spruce things up before they get dangerous.

You see, cleaning/dishes is, for me, like walking up the down escalator. Doing dishes is particularly taxing for me because it forces me to do two things that are very hard on my body: standing for a long time, and looking down. Unfortunately, cooking is one of the activities that brightens my days, so the dishes accumulate quickly. Also unfortunately, my sink has only one basin.

Sunbeam, delight of my life that she is, is also a human tornado. She can take a room from spotless to scary in an hour. She just wanders the apartment all day, throwing things onto the floor.  She pulls all the clothes out of all her dresser drawers as she’s deciding what to wear -- and she changes clothes about eight times a day. Any toy (or belonging of Mommy) that she grabs is enjoyed for a minute or two, and then likewise discarded. Crackers, cereal, and other crumby things become confetti on the carpet, which she then proceeds to grind to pieces one by one. I don’t have the stamina to follow her around to stop her from making messes or to pick up after her, so we usually live in and around piles of random stuff, which I'm constantly tripping over or not being able to move things without causing avalanches. It’s stressful. We hope that with our new helper, things won't have time to pile up so much.

I’ve been well enough to cook several times a week recently, but meals are always a nice service.  I used to have a formidable list of dietary restrictions, and I think it really stressed out the people who signed up to bring meals, but most of those have been lifted now.  What you need to know is that:

  • I’m allergic to peanuts and all other nuts except almonds and cashews
  • I can’t drink milk (but cheese, yogurt, ice cream are fine, or a little milk in a recipe).
  • I’m supposed to eat at least five servings of protein a day -- I mostly do chicken and eggs, some beans, roast beef. Occasional fish.

My condition has affected my tastes (food tastes differently to me because of the garbage in my blood) and my appetite (I get put off easily, usually due to a texture issue: fat, gristle, some hard bit, feels slimy). So please don't be offended if I give a list of things I don't like:

  • ground meat (hamburger, sausage)
  • red pork (ham, bacon)
  • fish with bones or skin
  • anything “hot” (peppery)
  • raw tomatoes (tomato sauce is good)
  • bell peppers
  • pickles
  • big chunks of onion or celery (diced is fine)
  • texture interruptions mentioned above (mostly meat or twiggy herbs)

With those exceptions, I enjoy a wide variety of foods: Mexican (mild), Italian, curry (mild), Asian, and good ol’ American home cookin’! I like things to be savory and flavorful, but not hot or bitter.

Bottom line: We're getting by pretty well right now, and others are probably more in need of assistance, but there is one thing...

Stay tuned for the next installment to find out the last question I always get!