Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Takes one to know one

So tonight, when I got off the train and started the weary walk up the street towards home, Sheri called to me from the other corner where she was panhandling and came running across the street to catch me. She's noticed I've been working too much lately, coming home late, looking tired and irritable. She wanted to make sure I was doing OK, tell me that I shouldn't be working so hard, remind me that I have a family and I have to take care myself and them. She planted herself between me and the direction I was heading and didn't let me go by until she'd said her piece.

At one point, I felt like I was in the middle of an intervention.

I listened for a minute or so, nodding my head agreeably, and then casually changed the subject. It was a subtle, even artful move, worthy of someone in the "helping" profession, someone who has taken classes where they talk about "transference" and "appropriate distance." I asked her how she was doing, how it was going in their new place (a tent at somebody's apartment around the corner). I knew I was subtly reorienting the conversation, shifting the focus from my problems to hers, realigning our roles as the helper and the one being helped. "Here is a person who is homeless," I'm thinking, "struggling to recover from drug and alcohol addiction, and she's worried about me working a little late?" And yet somehow I also knew that I was handling the whole thing all wrong, that there was something here that I needed to sit with for awhile and not move away from so quickly.

After all, my workaholic tendencies are really just a form of "clean addiction," just another way of being hooked. Maybe in this case it takes one to know one; it takes an addict to recognize the subtle signs of addiction. And I am an addict, I admit that. I am addicted to praise, addicted to admiration, addicted to success. I need it bad and I need it often, like a needle in my veins. This is a socially acceptable addiction that we have chosen to bless and reward. But its results are no less corrosive to our society, no less harmful to our families.

For all of us who are seeking, not merely to "help" the poor, but to truly live in community with them, there is a constant temptation that can be summed up in this word "help." In fact, the whole notion of "helping" others can itself become a kind of powerful drug that is incredibly addictive. We become "helping junkies," get to the place where we need a "compassion fix," where we need to help someone quick so that we can have that wonderful feeling of being strong and powerful, like a benevolent minor deity. If you are involved in this kind of work, you know exactly what I mean. There is a way of "helping" others that not only does not eliminate the distance between the giver and the receiver, but actually reinforces it. The whole thing then becomes purely a question of power and who wields it, just another level of control, another layer of dominance. Our relationships become one-directional, like looking out at the world through mirrored sunglasses, so that no one can see the pain, or hurt, or confusion, or doubt in our eyes.

What is lacking in all this is a sense of shared vulnerability. And in the final analysis, vulnerability is the only thing we all share in this life. A deacon of our Church once said to me that it is our strengths, the things we do well, that separate us from each other, while it is our wounds and our weaknesses that unite us as one community before the one Bread and the one Cup. And if we are to remain part of this community, we cannot always be the Good Samaritan. Sometimes, we have to be the man lying wounded by the side of the road. Sometimes, we have to risk being vulnerable.

You got my back, sis. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Sampson. I'm in a "helping profession" and know the adrenalin rush that comes from giving comfort and aid. I've also been the one lying on the side of the road. Actually, I've been there for awhile, but everyone crosses the road so they don't have to see me.

Sigh ...

Sampson said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your post. It sounds as if there is a great deal more of the story left to be told.

If you want to continue the conversation, you can email me at orthact_sampson@earthlink.net.

Anyhow, thanks for your thoughts.


basil said...

Sampson, there is another interesting perspective on strengths and weaknesses: In my experience, our greatest strengths also tend to be our greatest weaknesses. Like your current example. Your strength is to be a helper; but it also becomes a weakness (or at least a blessing and a curse).

Anonymous said...

Hi Sampson. Thank you for this piece. It very carefully underscores the reality of subtle power dynamics we all play with every day in ordinary interactions. This very issue is part of why I discarded my psychology degree in favor of a more ordinary human way. One of Van Morrison's lyrics that really gets to me says basically that everyone is afraid to truly feel another's pain. In my book, that means we need to be able to be that person, to be the same as them, not elevated above them by some superior wisdom or insight, but just to be right there with them in their circumstance, whatever it may be. Hard, though.

In the practise I was committed to before I converted to Orthodoxy, one of the key "strengths" was vulnerability. To allow oneself to be open & permeable, leaky, even.

Thank you for reminding me.