This morning I opened my Facebook page to find that the father-in-law of a friend had passed away. That’s not so unusual in old folks, but it could hardly have come at a more inopportune time for her. She’s in Florida, under conditions that make it difficult for her to leave before the end of the week, and she has her children, 11 and 14 with her. While she’d like to be back in the Midwest comforting her family and sharing their grief, she’s instead trying to console the kids, deal with her pain on her own, and get some work done. Gotta be hard.
The feeling of wanting to do something — anything — to help in such a situation is nearly overpowering. Of course that’s not possible, but the feeling is still there. I think that sort of thing is hard-wired in humans: the desire to help other people in distress, even at our own inconvenience, and sometimes even at our own risk. It must have been one of the things that kept the clans together, back in the days when we were mostly nomads. It is so universal that it has to be one of the foundations of our human-ness.
Instincts are good things. We didn’t get them by accident; we have them because they conferred an advantage at some point in time, so the customs — perhaps even genetic tendencies in some cases — got passed on. But instincts, like other good things, can be troublesome when they cause us continually to move in directions that are not in our best interest. Often, they’re not in the best interest of the folks we’re trying to help, either.
By now, many of you will have figured out that I’m leading up to talking about codependency and enabling. Well, enabling anyway. Many times our instinct to help friends and loved ones can cause us to do things that are not good for them, even though it might seem so on the surface.
The parents who over-protect their children, preventing them from learning the coping skills that they will need after they leave home are one obvious example. The grandmother who bails her drunken or drug-addled grandchild out of jail, sees to it that his rent is paid, gets him medical care and so forth is another. She may seem to be doing the right thing but, if we look at it a bit closer, we see that her very acts of kindness are preventing him from confronting his problems and being forced to do something about them. Why change, which is always scary, when it feels better to stay where you are and let someone else do the work?
This sort of thing can be carried even farther: the wife who stays with the abusive drunk, jeopardizing her own wellbeing and that of her children, out of a mistaken notion that it is her “duty,” or that “he really loves us because he’s so nice when he’s not drinking.” Well I’m an old country boy, and I can tell you that rattlesnakes have nice markings and look harmless basking in the sun, but you don’t want one in your kitchen. It’s not that they’re UN-predictable, it’s that they’re as predictable as all get-out.
We could keep going on and on, but I’m sure you see the point. We need to look carefully at our behavior, as it affects other people. We need to consider whether what we’re doing is really what they need, or if it just makes us feel good, or dutiful, or needed, or simply relieves that discomfort that most of us feel when we see someone in trouble.
Empathy and kindness are well and good, but there really can be too much of a good thing, when it comes to helping. Are we helping or hindering?
In the case of my friend, well, she’s a big girl — a scientist and world-traveler. She can take care of herself. She knows how to ask for help, and she knows that she has many more friends than most folks, ready and willing to jump in and lend a hand. There’s a fine line between willingness to help and getting in the way.