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When You’re a Helper Who Can’t Help

when you can't be a helper in difficult times
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A Helper Who Can’t Help

While I have not extensively studied the Enneagram, it’s safe to say that my personality is fairly equally balanced between a 1 and a 2.

Twos, the Helpers, are identifiable by their willingness to lend a helping hand in almost any situation. They’re the ones on the frontlines, putting away tables after the party, organizing the soup kitchen pantry, and opening doors for literally every person.

This, my friends, is me. Well, until recently it was.

I have had, for as long as I can remember, a deep internal need to “make myself useful.” I’m sure this was influenced by both gendered conditioning and my mother’s example of selflessness, ingrained even deeper by my Christian religious tradition. It has only been exacerbated by nearly a decade working in customer service and retail.

Lest you think I am tooting my own horn, I’ll let you in on a secret. I help just as much for me as for the other person. I like the little dopamine rush that comes with doing a good deed. I like the mental satisfaction of checking a concrete activity off my list. I like that my identity is built around paying attention and doing what’s right.

Of course, this has gotten me into trouble, more than once.

In some cases, in differentiating between who “needs” help, I have chosen an individual I deem to be marginalized, offering aid that they didn’t ask for, which results in a kind of override of their autonomy.

In other cases, I have ignored the needs of those right in front of me, thinking that their autonomy is more important than collective care of one another.

In all cases, I am sincerely trying to make someone’s day just a little bit better: less hassle, less isolation, more community.

But this semester has been a rude wake-up call.

First, I sprained my ankle, thus rendering most “helpful” activities out of reach. Instead, it became an act of sacrifice and of grace for me to receive help from others. Friends gave me rides, took over my duties during school events, ran errands on my behalf, and even did my laundry.

This caused real emotional turmoil, even as I acknowledged how beautiful it was to receive such care. It messed with my identity. It made me feel like a useless bag of bones. I worried that people thought I was faking it so I wouldn’t have to “pull my weight” (relatedly, I had some very eye-opening conversations with members of my seminary’s Disability Advocacy group during this period, as I recognized how this self-bias toward “needing” to make myself useful in mobility-dependent ways was revealing my ableist judgments of others).

During a silent retreat week in February, I felt my first bit of respite from the cycle of guilt and helplessness. We were being asked to do nothing, and that was something I was able to do. I found that time refreshing, and it encouraged me to understand this period of helplessness as a kind of discernment. It was high time I stopped putting my nose into everything trying to assert my right to exist, all predicated on the idea that I was helpful.

It became clear to me through those months that being helpful was not simply a moral premise, although, of course, it is based in a kind of moral framing. It was/is a gut response to feeling like maybe I won’t be accepted, and maybe I don’t belong. And I know why I do this: because when I see others not helping, I don’t (always) accept them. I was so afraid of being judged the way I was judging others. And that really made me feel like a useless bag of bones.

So I sat (because, in fact, I could not stand). I asked for help. I stopped apologizing for being in people’s way and for leaving events before clean-up. I started to really understand that, if I am training to be a community leader, then part of that leadership is modeling what interdependence looks like.

And then the pandemic came.

Things have ramped up in the last month, with constant calls to “pay attention” and “get involved,” triggers to helpers like me.

While my ankle is on the mend, my spouse is high risk for complications if he contracts Covid-19, and that means that any contact I have in the world could compromise his health.

The helper guilt has come out in full force. I have friends working at the local soup kitchen, tending to the community garden, getting groceries for the vulnerable, and showing up in various, risky ways to help those in need. I follow social media accounts of people dedicating all of their time and energy to garment worker advocacy or political lobbying.

Meanwhile, the knot tightens in my chest. On Thursday, I was fine until I wasn’t, and almost had a panic attack (which I’ve safely avoided for the last year and a half). I am barely managing myself, I am barely helping myself, and I have been, at times, on the verge of risking it all for the sake of making myself useful.

But, while I have a right to put myself at risk, I do not have a right to put my spouse at risk. And what does it say about my present and future ministry if I punish myself – and cause further harm to my mental and physical health – for not being the helpful person I want to be?

What does it say about my orientation toward those with chronic disabilities when I demand that everyone “be helpful” in precisely the ways I think are “correct”? What does it say when I dehumanize myself for the sake of others’ humanity?

Self sacrifice is fundamental to living in community, but it is mutual. If we all deserve to survive this, that means you, too.

So, I’m not advocating sitting back and forgetting the world exists. I hope that we can lean into this moment and do our parts. But we need to be clear that “our parts” are going to be different. We cannot all take the same risks. We better not take risks just to make ourselves useful. This is complicated by my Christian faith, one that has, historically and in its central narrative, valorized martyrdom.

But sometimes we make martyrs so we can ignore systemic inefficiencies, so we can distract from the horror and praise the hero instead. This is dangerous, because it dehumanizes as it memorializes. It turns people into caricatures. I will not be the dehumanized hero. Neither will I be the dehumanized victim.

I will sit. I will be a useless bag of bones. I will reach out and check in and pay as much attention as I can. But I will no longer buy the pernicious lie that not being helpful makes me not worthy of being alive.

More in the Strange Times series.

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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