Self-Styled Saviors

More than a decade ago, I worked the summer between my graduation from college and my mission at an LDS girls’ camp. Every week we had a guest speaker or fireside, and I believe it was at one of them that the girls were invited to share something about their dreams/goals/life plans with the room at large. I still remember the twelve-year-old who announced with great assurance that when she grew up, she was going to “help abused children.” (This was at the fever pitch of abuse trendiness, which seems somewhat in decline these days, although sadly, abuse itself likely isn’t.) Years later, I thought about her again when my husband remarked to me, in exasperation at some of his female colleagues’ propensity for excessive entanglement with their clients, that there ought to be a diagnosis (Axis II?) for “desire to become a psychologist.”

What is it about the “help” some proffer that makes me force a noncommital smile over my grit teeth and run for cover? I love that line from The Screwtape Letters: “She lives for others–you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.” Although I don’t truck with Lewis’s misogyny, sadly, I think he got the gender right on this one. In general, women do seem more attuned to the feelings of others than men do (although I’d be the first to say there are many exceptions). We’re taught, rightly, that selfishness is a sin, service a virtue, and I should emphasize here that I think the vast majority of service offered is both humble and sincere. But there are also some devastating forms of service that seem particularly likely to manifest in religious contexts, the forms that made “charity” such a hideous word in nineteenth-century novels and to this day in certain contexts.

It’s difficult to put my finger on what I mistrust in some offers of help. In some cases it’s the sense that the offerer associates with me only out of duty (Visiting Teaching syndrome), and in others I think it’s a subtle sense of superiority, sometimes martyred superiority, in which the person “serves” to fulfill some need in herself. Helping others can be very gratifying, in all the best ways, and in all the worst. It can fill us with the Spirit, with compassion, with the grace of Christ, and it can exercise a humane broadening on our vision. And it can fill us with self-satisfaction and self-righteousness if we gaze into the eyes of the poor or the suffering only to see our own saintly reflection. It can also allow us to avoid confronting the contradictions of our own lives by focusing instead on the far more comfortable shortcomings of others. I should know; there have been situations in my life in which I have assumed the helping role to avoid taking a hard look inward.

The hallmark of service I trust is humility and reciprocity. I trust people who want to teach me if they are willing to learn from me; I trust people who want to answer my questions if they are willing to allow me to question their answers. And–I think this is particularly vital–I trust people who want to serve me if they’re also willing to allow me to serve them. Christ is our only Savior; no other person or thing or program or institution or human act, however well meant, can save. I deeply mistrust the motives of people, both in and out of the church, who want to save me themselves.

A few years ago, there was a cartoon in the New Yorker featuring a carcass in the desert, and one observer saying to another of specks in the distance “Could be vultures. Could be grief counselors.”

Service shouldn’t make us into vultures.

17 thoughts on “Self-Styled Saviors

  1. 1

    Nice, Eve.

    The hallmark of service I trust is humility and reciprocity.

    Reciprocity works well, I think, when we covenant to bear one another’s burdens.

    And you’re right about Lewis – from our perspective he often appears to be a fussy old man. He also said something else that might contribute to your post, but I can’t remember where. Something to the effect that women place great value on being served, therefore they spare no effort in attending to others. Men, on the other hand, place great value on being left alone, therefore the highest form of service they offer is to not interfere. I offer that with the usual caveats about overgeneralization, etc.

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    Yes. Humility is perhaps the most critical Christ-like attribute after charity itself. But that does not mean abandoning standards that one knows are inspired, but rather being effacing and submissive with respect to ones own desires and wishes. It is a grand paradox – as an individual one must be humble, as a representative of Christ one must be bold.

    Sometimes a hard balance to acheive. The mantle (of the Holy Ghost) is greater than the intellect, right? So one must both turn on a dime or stand firm, as the Spirit dictates.

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    Wow, there is some serious kismet going around the bloggernacle: this is the second post today that channels something I currently have in, er, very very slow progress. Except that your post won’t shed a very flattering light on mine or me. Eek!

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    in others I think it’s a subtle sense of superiority, sometimes martyred superiority, in which the person “serves” to fulfill some need in herself.

    I know many who seek out service to make themselves feel better about their own inequalities. It makes them feel better to be around those who measure, in their mind, worse off than them.

    When I’m feeling down, I like to serve others because I’m not focusing so much on my own issues, but rather making someone else feel better. As a result, I feel better. Is there truly a way to serve others that is not selfish?

  5. 5

    Good points Eve.

    Personally, I think there are many “charities”, as your thesis proposes. There are those who serve for image, those who serve to feel better about themselves, etc. I agree that the highest form of charity is the one in which the focus is on the the recipient of the charitable action.

    I think it is not profitable to try to evaluate others’ intentions when they perform charitable acts. There is too much room for error/misinterpretation, and it is always better to err on the side of being less judgemental. Also, I have known examples of people who slowly have become over-defensive when offered help.

    I do not mean to criticize your position; in fact, I agree with your ideas. Nevertheless, I think it’s better to err on the side of naivete with regards to these things. It is better to take the offered charitable act as sincere, and, if the help has some secret intention, let them have it their way…

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    Eve, have you read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Lame Shall Enter First”? A lot of what you said here reminded me of it. The protagonist works as a counselor at a boy’s reformatory, “receiving nothing for it but the satisfaction of knowing he was helping boys no one else cared about,” while ignoring his own son, and it really gets at this theme of trying to save people. At one point the main character even says explicitly to the juvenile delinquent: “I’m stronger than you are and I’m going to save you,” which I think is a classic line.

  8. 8

    Thanks to all responders.

    Mark IV, thanks for the additional Lewis comment. It sounds familiar to me too, but I have to confess I haven’t read him in a long time. Lewis is definitely an interesting character. I find myself really sympathetic to some of his claims–he’s got a point in taking on Blake and the subsequent Romantic glorification of Milton’s devil, for instance–and baffled and exasperated by others. His depictions of women often seem downright cartoonish. And the Narnia books, which I love, love, OK, but the devil turns into two different witches (this isn’t even Christian theology at all, in which the devil, like God, is always male), and Edmund’s blatant, outright betrayal of his family and all that is good and wholesome can be reversed, but Susan’s defection into, horror of horrors, adult femininity, the superficiality of lipstick and stockings, is utterly beyond remedy in time or or in eternity? Did this man have just a little probem with women (as opposed to eternal girls like Lucy) ?? On the other hand, I picked up a biography of Lewis at just the point in my adolescence when I was experiencing something of a violent feminist awakening. I was constantly amazed and horrified at how many famous men whose ideas intrigued me just dismissed women as a category, out of hand, as not worth their time. I’m more jaded now. Perhaps I’d be more able to overlook the sexism and pick out the good stuff.

    The quote about men wanting to be left alone and women wanting to be fussed over strikes me as both somewhat true and as hardly bothering to conceal a very clear value judgment about which of those modes of being is preferable. But thinking about it has made me realize that in most situations and with most people, I strongly prefer to be left alone, myself, and that preference might cause me to misread the sincere offers of help from other women.

    One of the things I find most curious about Lewis is the way we’ve so wholeheartedly christened him, as it were, a dry Mormon. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that adoption, but I’ve sometimes heard him quoted, along with Hugh Nibley, as a quasi-GA. Of course, we love Luther and Calvin and Tyndall and have made all of them forerunners of the Restoration, so maybe we just can’t resist conservative Protestant intellectuals, especially when they feed our anglophilia.

    Hmm, didn’t realize I had so much to say about Lewis! Back to the topic at hand….

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    Mark Butler, I’ve always loved that passage in Alma 38 in which Alma instructs Shiblon to be bold but not overbearing, to bridle his passions that he might be filled with love, and to acknowledge his unworthiness before God specifically in the context of praying for others, that his prayer might never be an expression of superiority in the consideration of others’ needs and weaknesses, but rather a request made in the humible recognition of our common humanity. Beautiful stuff.

    Bejing, well said.

    Lynnette, I hadn’t thought of Flannery O’Connor in this conext, but I should have. I love that story. Your quote also reminded me of that great scene in the recent movie Saved in which the Christian girl hurls a Bible at her rebellious classmate and hisses, “I am FILLED with Christian love!” The movie’s problematic for other reasons (religion turns out to be sheer hypocritical denial in all cases–let us liberate ourselves from the law of chastity! Nope, I don’t think so), but everyone who’s endured a certain kind of religious upbringing just has to love that scene, not to mention the entire collected works of O’Connor.

    Rosalynde, good heavens, I’ve barely scratched the surface of a complicated topic–I’m sure you’ll have much to add to the discussion!

    Jilopa and hhhhh (may I call you hh? 😉 ) raise some excellent questions about the convolutions of altruism, to which I have no answers, I’m afraid. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to get up, get out of yourself, and do something for someone else as a way of avoiding dwelling on your own problems. In many cases I think that’s very healthy. In some cases, though, especially where interventions are being staged and the psychological thumbscrews are being applied to an identified patient in the name of “help” (maybe adolescent girls are particularly prone to this kind of thing, gathering in the bathroom to apply lip gloss and flip hair and analyze the shortcomings of whoever’s not in the Rainbo-n-Unicorn Club this week), then a great deal of nastiness can fly under the radar of “helping” someone overcome her truly appalling and disgusting behavior.

    Hhhhh, your point about not being overly suspicious of others’ motives is well taken. Here’s the rule of thumb I would propose: the more impersonal and detached the help is, the less motive becomes a concern. If I knit leper bandages for people halfway around the world because I’m bored, angry over petty irritations, sick of my own life, and full of prideful condescension toward people in Third World cultures, well, not the best motives, but they’re not going to do the people receiving the bandages any harm (just me). If I donate food, clothes, money to people I don’t know, same thing. If I take cast-off clothes to someone I do know, it’s starting to get a little more personal. I’d better be careful to handle the whole thing tactfully and make it clear that I’m not condescending to her, that I don’t think I’m too good to learn from her as well as teach her and receive from her as well as give. If I’m going to “be a friend” to someone as service project, it’s imperative that I’m not doing so out of duty or superiority. I saw that kind of stuff (let’s save the social leper and all be nice to him/her!) absolutely torpedo people in seminary, for example, because the message is so clearly You are not as good as we are. And if I’m going to intervene in someone’s private life and try to “help” her with all of her deepseated problems, I’d better be very, very honest with myself about my own motives for doing so. People who are attracted to the helping professions like pyschology are sometimes trying to play out their own dramas through their clients. Through my association with my husband, I’ve met more than one prospective and practicing psychologist/social worker/counselor whom clients would have been well advised to flee.

    I should come clean here and say that, for the most part, my motives for service are not pure. More often than not, I serve out of duty. I’m not proud of this. It’s a problem. But every once in a great while I have one of those moments when I see something of who the other person really is, in an eternal sense, and in those moments I would do anything, anything for that person not because I’m so good, not because I even come into the picture at all, but because it’s blindingly clear that they are so good that any sacrifice for their eternal welfare is absolutely, unequivocally worth it. Those moments are priceless.

    I wish I felt that way more often. I hope that over the course of my life I can learn to.

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    The quote about men wanting to be left alone and women wanting to be fussed over strikes me as both somewhat true and as hardly bothering to conceal a very clear value judgment about which of those modes of being is preferable. But thinking about it has made me realize that in most situations and with most people, I strongly prefer to be left alone, myself, and that preference might cause me to misread the sincere offers of help from other women.

    Gary Chapman’s written a great book called The Five Love Languages that’s all about how different people equate different things/actions with love (and how even if you’re doing the thing that you equate with love, that doesn’t mean that the recipient necessarily will). His five proposed languages are “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” “Acts of Service” and “Physical Touch.”

    Like Eve, I’d rather be left alone than have people trying to serve me in traditional ways, but it’s probably in my best interest to realize that perhaps they really do mean well in their actions, and perhaps it’s my responsibility to better explain how I prefer to be loved.

    I also liked Beijing’s comment.

  11. 11

    That is one of my favorite quotes from CS Lewis!

    The problem, as I see it, and as I believe Lewis rightly understood, is that many people confuse “helping” with “controlling.”

    I love to be helped by people I feel comfortable with, like the time my best friend came over and cleaned up my room so nobody could see that sometimes Bill and I don’t sleep together.

    But I resent all those people who are trying to help me be more righteous.

    I ask for help all the time on the bloggernacle and I love that. I hate when my husband tries to help me organize the kitchen. He “helps” me keep his environment clutter free. Woopee.

    There’s a difference. I think it’s motive.

  12. 12

    Eve, it is a hard thing. Sometimes I feel like certain things just have to be said, even if people will take offense at them. Not a good way to be popular.

    One of my rules is to try at all costs to avoid characterizing individuals negatively, but rather to speak only of ideas, and always have a reason to back up any criticism I make of any idea. Of course certain harmful combinations of individuals are hard to avoid criticizing.

  13. 13

    Hi Eve–

    I want to reply in much greater detail (I’ll hopefully be able to tomorrow), but I quickly wanted to ask where you were working. Oakcrest? Brighton? I was a counselor at Oakcrest in the summer of 1995…

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    Hi Eve–

    I would love to write a nice, long, well-informed response to this post, because the issues that you bring up here are issues that I think about all of the time. For now, I will just say this: It seems to me that our (Mormon) notion of compassion is skewed by the fact that it is obligatory. Does compassion cease to be compassionate when it is required? I have found this to be the case for me, and it seems to be the case for you, from your post.

    Related to this, I was asked in RS on Sunday to fill out a survey. One section of this survey asked me how I would like to serve: By taking meals to new moms, by helping someone run errands, by taking care of children, etc. It seems to me when we make compassion obligatory in this way (and turn it into a checklist), we support only a very small portion of women in the ward: Typically, those with new babies and small children. Most other women slip through the cracks in this narrowly-defined, obligatory compassion—women whose struggles are invisible to the sister sitting next to her in RS.

    That said, if we do not require compassionate works from one another, what will motivate us to cohere as a mutually-supportive group?

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    Sonnet, I, too, have noticed that Mormons often think of service in terms of very practical tasks (cooking, assisting with a move, babysitting). While that kind of service is immensely helpful, I think we often aren’t reminded enough about the kinds of service that are less obvious (emotional support, etc).

    I think it’s okay to strongly encourage compassionate works. And I’m okay with babysitting and cooking checklists. But I wish people would have more conversations about the multitudinous ways in which we can serve others.

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    Sonnet and Seraphine, thanks for your thoughtful observations. I didn’t really consider the thorny issue of duty when I wrote this post, but as you point out, it’s a central issue in a community that requires service. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to require service, necessarily–when I’m feeling grumpy and irritable and very little in the mood to extend myself, I something try to remind myself that my service isn’t for me, it’s for someone else who needs something, and that other person can’t just wait around for food or a tire change until I get my motives all purified. But the kinds of vital, intangible service Seraphine mentioned really can’t operate on duty. I think Bejing put it so well, a few comments back. Personal service is too fragile to be sustained my anything but genuine friendship and love. (Of course, genuine friendship and love begin as acts of faith, and sometimes in the context of fulfilling duty. So it’s tricky.)

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