It has been a challenging time for our family. We are now up to four tragedies in six months. About a month ago, my cousin’s house burned down to the ground. We were with him and his wife when they got the call (at the memorial service of the latest death in our family), so we followed them to their property. There was nothing left! No partial wall, no bits of furniture, absolutely nothing! This is the same family who tragically lost their son-in-law (at age 32) in December. They are all still grieving, and now this.
What arose in me was a great desire to help them. It was all-pervading and didn’t feel entirely pure on my part. My mind was consumed with ways I could, or should, help them. I felt guilty going to work or relaxing at home (instead of being with them full-time). I felt jealousy when they told stories of friends who bought things for them, had them over for dinner, or helped them in any way. I knew that there were things that were not appropriate for me to be involved with – they have their grown children who needed to be with them during this time as a nuclear family. I also knew that they have a large network of friends who are closer to them than I am in many ways and were able to supply what my cousin and his family needed. I found a few key things I could help them with, and then I backed off with the offers of help. But this didn’t stop my suffering.
After a week of sitting with the intense feelings of guilt, jealousy, and overwhelm, it suddenly occurred to me that my desire to help my cousin was actually coming out of a need to soothe myself – to help ME get over my shock and grief over their losses. What a “light-bulb” moment! I then thought back on others who I’ve had an intense desire to help, and how that “helping” was also done primarily to put myself at ease. Wow! I think we do this all the time. We see an ad asking for help for a struggling orphan in an impoverished country and we send in our dollars to ease our sorrow. We give the homeless person carrying a sign asking for help some change out of our pockets to lessen our guilt over the inequity. At other times, we see on the news a catastrophe happening in another state or we see all the animals at the shelter needing homes, and we feel absolutely helpless- helpless in soothing our own suffering over these situations.
So what can we do? Since my “light-bulb” moment, I’ve been very careful to check my motivations before reaching out to anyone whose suffering is triggering me in an intense way. Once I detect strong emotions of guilt, sorrow, or overwhelm, to name just a few, I know my desire to help is not just towards them, but towards myself too. Then I start the process of taking care of my own feelings. As I begin to soothe myself, I can become cleaner with my offers of assistance to another…be that money to the orphan, the pocket change to the homeless person, or helping my cousin get back on his feet again.