Removing the Thorn - P J Crook courtesy of Bridgeman Images
Some time ago, a colleague in a now defunct writers' forum, highlighted the paradox of how self-interest can masquerade as altruism. She quoted Ezra Bayda: '...whenever we feel an urgency or longing to help, it’s often rooted in the fear of facing our own unhealed pain.'
That it may be so, can't be disputed and the blogger was scrupulously honest in examining her own motives, but I'd want to question the other side of Bayda's proposal.
What is so suspect about the empathy, or insight, that arises from going through, or having been through, the same kind of experiences? In externalising and refocusing our concerns, we can mend ourselves and maybe help to mend others, too. The endeavour itself is a learning curve and a transforming process. To claim, as Bayda apparently does, that it has no power to change us or enable inner growth is neither my personal experience nor observation of others'.
The Golden Rule suggests that we do to others as we would have them do to us . We love our neighbour as ourselves. We are linked. It's a mirror image, a multiple, ongoing, mirror image. We are interdependent. It's meant to be that way.
Yes, we do recognise fear in others because it is also in us. Mightn't that be true compassion? The most constructive form of aversion therapy, perhaps? Aren't we here to try to make the best of the hand we're dealt and 'contain the chaos', make some kind of sense of it?
There is a lovely metaphor in circulation among clergy concerning a banquet in the halls of heaven where the guests, seated at one long table, are left to contemplate with dismay the wonderful feast placed before them. It turns out that the cutlery is too long to supply their own mouths! All that promise is destined to disappoint, until they hit on the solution of ministering to the person seated opposite so that the occasion metamorphoses into pure delight and enjoyment.
It is a documented, yet logically unexplained fact, that there are times, in extremis, in the heat of battle, or persecution, a human being will actually choose to lay down his life for someone he believes to be a worthier candidate for living than himself. This is not the same thing as fighting for freedom, or king or country, and being willing to place one's life on the line in a worst case scenario. Nor can it be compared with a death-and-glory bid in some ideological cause which is anathema to anything that passes for love.
I readily concede that there can be unhealthy instances of identity transference, hostage issues, possession, and ego-building at the expense of others, but feel sure the primary impulse is a sound one. Knowing when to offer help, and when to withdraw, is key. If we're going for the 'golden glow', we might as well forget it, because effective help is not necessarily recognised (on either side!) and is not always appreciated. Not everyone in crisis wants to be helped deep down.
In the overt quest for self-development and the solipsist outlook that goes with it, the western world seems to have hamstrung itself by believing that any form of altruism reflects hypocrisy. When our pop culture idols try to inject meaning into their empty existences and set some kind of karma in train for all they have been given, the scream of 'publicity' is loud and clear. But who are we to judge? How do we know they haven't had some Damascene revelation? If it's simply that their consciences have been smitten by humanitarian responsibility, does that trash their motive or nullify the good they do?
What appears to rule here is the bias of a mythical norm, a kind of mean that is purged of our shadier motives. Well, we're human, prone to bumbling idiocy half the time. We're not perfect. And the only way we're going to 'come good', sooner or later, is by acting out of our better nature, subscribing to a common value.
Our parents and grandparents – who weren't hidebound by the relativistic climate that is supposed to have freed us – used to have a saying: 'Do right because it is right.'
The blogger challenged our relationship with 'doing good'. What new resolutions did we need to form?
Personally, I am ever conscious of the pitfalls she spoke of, but at the end of the day, I can hand it all over to God and trust that through his agency good will emerge, healing will take place, maybe a quite different good from what I envisaged and one that, in the apparent scheme of things, has no connection with me.
So my maxim is the wisdom attributed both to St Augustine and to St Ignatius Loyola: 'Work as if everything depends on you and pray as if everything depends on God.'
In my book, that's awesome teamwork!
© Copyright Rosy Cole 2010 and 2015