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.