How much do I help?
I admit it, I’m a helper. It is not hard to guess that, especially if you know me. My profession gives it away, too, you know, I’m a shrink. This has been the theme of my life, helping others, and I often wonder how that came to be. I come from a family filled with generosity and lots of doctors. I married a doctor. Personal growth and work on the self were common themes growing up, even in the midst of normal and sometimes not-so-normal family or marital fighting. The Seventies were the decade of increasing awareness and transformation and my parents weren’t “hippies,” but were certainly into discovering the self and that trickles down. The Werner Erhard seminar called “est” was a big part of my childhood and my parents were “est-holes.” While off the beaten path and considered a cult by some, it was a big part of my young life and I have to say, I am grateful for it. My mom led graduate seminars and I remember sitting in the room, watching her command hundreds of minds and souls in awe. She was a conduit for their transformation, and it was amazing to experience. I think those were the best and most powerful years of her life. Watching her made me want to help even more.
They say your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness—and this is not just a cliché, it is incredibly true. Every trait we have has two sides to balance, the positive and the negative, and finding this balance is the key. Compassion is one of those traits I have to watch carefully. Some might even call it a bleeding heart. When I lived in Los Angeles, my compassion compelled me to do dog rescue. You can’t drive around LA without seeing a stray dog, at least not when I lived there. I would scoop them up and bring them home and find them homes. All of my friends had one or two dogs because of me, and many helped me foster while finding them homes. I had two dogs of my own, so it was often a big shuffle and disruption. It made me feel great and broke my heart at the same time. Balance. So hard to maintain. And this struggle to keep finding balance continues to this day. I want to help everyone but obviously cannot, so how do I figure who and how to help? Something I have recently begun to understand is the impact helping others has on me.
Growing up is confusing. For instance, sharing. You are punished for not sharing as a child but who shares their stuff as an adult?!? I can’t walk to my neighbor and say, “I’m taking your car today because you need to share with me.” That’s called Grand Theft Auto! And hugging. As a child, you are made to hug everyone your parents tell you to, but then as an adult, you don’t speak up when someone hugs you inappropriately because the early message was very confusing and disempowering. Same thing with helping. We are supposed to help each other and feel good about it, goddammit. But even as a child, when you help someone that is a bully or not grateful, it is again, confusing. I think we are wired to help each other because we are tribal beings, but what if helping them hurts you? This has taken me five decades to sort out and I’m still not done. Saying no to helping someone, or heaven forbid an animal, has been excruciatingly painful to me. I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the line, I convinced myself I was responsible for everyone else’s happiness. Impossible, I know, but still a drive I can’t seem to shake. Self-awareness has been the salve, although it doesn’t always make it feel better in the moment. I have had a few helping “opportunities” recently that have tested my balance.
Where I am in my life right now is over-burdened. I would like to keep everyone thinking that I have it all together, but there is too much to keep it all together. We have too many horses because compassion not only flows through my veins, but also my wife, Mette’s. “Save them all” could be the tagline for our barn. But what I have come to realize lately is that because there are so many, my ability to help becomes diluted. Sure, diluted help from me is certainly better than slaughter, but who is to say that animal wouldn’t have wound up somewhere else that is great for them. The arrogance of thinking I can do it better is a big part of the trap for me. And staff. I will tell you, being a psychologist is the kiss of death as a manager. I am pulled like a riptide to help anyone who even remotely seems unhappy. And my view of staff is that if they aren’t already unhappy, they will be soon, so I better go and fix it. It is pure torture—and not just for me. Can you imagine working for someone who thinks you are miserable all the time and just wants to fix it? Oy vey.
Honestly, if feels selfish to not help everyone…but I am getting used to it. Not feeling selfish, but not helping everyone. And the irony, there is always irony. I use the analogy of the safety information talk on an airplane to wave my finger at people for not taking care of themselves. You know, the “put your mask on first before helping others” part of the airplane talk. One flight, I was sitting next to a flight attendant and I asked her why that is important. You know, being a helper, it just seemed wrong to help myself first. She was funny, she said if the oxygen mask drops, so will the availability of oxygen in the cabin. So, she said the safety information should say, “please put your mask on first before helping others…because it is really hard to put a mask on your child if you are passed out in the isle!” Roger that, put mine on first. And even though it took a few years to really resonate with me, I am running out of air myself. Man, this helper thing really owns me.
Recently, I helped a dear, long-time friend with a re-org of her life. It was a big effort from me, but not once did it occur like that. It was actually a blessing. As I went through the necessary and energetically costly events, I was constantly amazed at the immediate return on investment and how great it made me feel. It was something I was meant to do, and I felt honored and blessed to have been able to do it. A huge factor here was how much she has contributed to me over the years. Always there on the other end of the phone whenever I called, she is a helper, too. Symbiotic in our nature, we have never over-asked of each other, and never underappreciated the help. It is a powerful relationship and really serves and helps us both. In contrast, there is someone I don’t know well or very long that could use my help. Of course, I am pulled to do so but I don’t think I will, at least not at full scale. I don’t think it will help me very much and it even has the possibility to cost me (not financially). My instant reaction is that I am selfish, but there is a feeling of a dangling oxygen mask that I just need to put on myself first. There is a part of me that is proud of myself for choosing this option, even though the feeling of selfishness keeps poking its head out at me.
Two years ago, we moved my dad and stepmom here to help them retire and take care of them. They are 85 and 80, although you would think my stepmom is sixty the way she hustles and can’t keep still. They have been together for 35 years, more than half my life, so she is important to me and I love her. And so, we help them, lots. But for some reason, it does not feel like a burden. My dad might not have been the perfect father (um, who is), but helping him helps me. I think about it a lot, helping him. Not everyone understands why, especially how much Mette helps. She goes over and above every day for them with me as the only reason. And that makes me think even more. Her love for horses is part of the explanation for our over-sized herd, but I would do that for her. Off-balance but for the right reasons…so does that count for something? The return on investment isn’t always immediate, in fact, sometimes the delay is incredible. But when a horse that was too weak and malnourished to lay down for the first three months finally lays down, the tears that accompany his magical grunts of relief and safety erase all the struggle. When my dad looks at me and can barely find the words to express his gratitude and love, for both of us, it refills the tanks and reaffirms what we are doing.
“SOS” is a distress call, originating in the nautical world, and actually, the letters don’t stand for anything. Many think it stands for “Save Our Ship (or Souls)” but that is inaccurate, it just means MAYDAY, also not an acronym. More irony that the two ways that are globally understood to mean “help” have no deeper meaning. In my mind, it all needs a deeper meaning so finding out that there is none made me laugh. Sometimes we need help and sometimes we give help: it is supposed to be a balance, like all things in life. And so, I will continue to help others while managing myself to make sure that my oxygen mask is secured first. Save them all becomes save who I can powerfully, with myself included in there, too. Better balance and better help. I can live with that.