Sunday, June 29, 2008

What I'm Thinking About

Before I even begin, the politics of language arise.

Help. Save. These are deeply problematic words. Not in the physical context: an emergency room physician saves, as does a lifeguard. If you are in physical trouble, it helps to have someone save you (unless you have a good jackknife and are braver than I am). But when you go about saving a country, you often end up in bigger trouble than you started--or, as the unplanned syntax of that sentence suggests, you start bigger trouble. Saving a person--well, the immediate association for me is saving souls, which you can imagine I might have problems with (see: colonialism, missionaries, et al). And help, which may sound innocuous, has its own problematic implications: help and save both put the subject of the verb in the position of power (and no, the subject position is not inherently empowered: when she drowns, she's not too powerful, though it might help if she were saved).

In short, setting out to help or save someone presumes that you know what's best for them, that you can be the agent of their salvation, or even improvement. And yet, to turn to psychology (which can be expanded to social psychology and sociology, but ultimately this post is about a person, so we're not going to go there), it is pretty much clear that, once they are past childhood, people can only save themselves (see: AA, et al).

What can you do, then, if someone is in trouble, and you feel that you must do something? You can try to create the conditions that will enable them to save themselves. This is why humanitarian aid is so essential in a world so riven with inequities. This is why humanitarian aid tied to political agendas is doomed to fail. But like I said, we're talking about a person, not politics.

This spring, S and I have been trying to create the conditions that would enable someone in very big trouble to save herself. We turned our lives upside down. We slighted our kids, we spent money we didn't have, I didn't do work I needed to do. We spent hours...on the phone, in person, talking, being there, negotiating, reframing, checking up, accompanying, comforting. We dealt with crazy people we didn't need to be dealing with. We got really frustrated, but we also got the joy and relief of things going well, which sometimes they did. Throughout, we knew we were doing the right thing, the thing we had to do, and we knew it was very likely that our efforts would fail.

Our efforts have failed. This person is going to have to save herself somewhere else. Everyone is telling us we did everything we could, but they don't need to tell us: we know. And we hope that, in the long run, what we did will make a difference, and maybe it will.

This post had a point, but I think I've forgotten it, in the difficulty of finding the right words. I'm not concerned with us: we're fine, we've been fine all along, right now we're a little tired and frustrated and sad, but we'll finish cleaning the house, and I'll get some work done, and we'll go away next weekend. I'm not that worried about this person either. Either she'll turn it around or she won't. It will be sad if she doesn't, but she's been pretty diligent about burning her bridges and burning out the people who love her. I hope that doesn't sound callous, or rather, I don't care if that sounds callous.

I do feel worried about our society, and this is definitely part of the point. To overcome the effects of childhood abuse and neglect, even with all the resources in the world, is a monumental task, as I've just learned for myself. When I think of all the abused and neglected children, and how many of them have hardly any resources, my heart shivers.

Maybe I'll leave it at that.


Jenny Davidson said...

I think the odds are good that what you did will have made some difference, even if it doesn't look that way in the immediate future.

Libby said...

I agree with Jenny. I also think that you've got an insight into how monumental the task facing us as a society is: how do we help people help themselves when 1) they may not want it, 2) others who could help won't, and 3) we can't always agree on methods even if 1 & 2 were aligned?

postacademic said...

Geez...I am really impressed with your energy and dedication and commitment, right up to the point where you have to say 'no more.'

I am really struggling with how to say 'no' to people who I am not really close to, but who want and need alot from me and other people because of difficult /horrible / tragic situations in their own lives. This is the polar opposite of your own case - where you did as much as you humanly could. But when I did a google search for "how to say no," I found legions of sites offering advice. It seems like saying "no" or saying 'no more' can also be an empowering process.