In Catholic school first grade, they taught us about sin.
Sister Mary Somethingorother drew a picture of a soul on the chalkboard that looked just like the outline of a t-shirt. Then she made little specks, like stains on a shirt, and called them Venial Sins; these were little sins like lying or picking on your little brother. These, she said, God would forgive if we did our penance for it. Then she turned the chalk on its side and made a big blob and told us this was a Mortal Sin, like killing someone (or spilling a bowl of soup on your shirt–presumably); these, she said, God would never forgive and he (always “he”) would send us to Hell where we would burn in fire and agony for all of eternity with no hope of ever getting out.
Not meaning to be cheeky, but nonetheless compelled, I asked her, “Why is it that God asks us to forgive others no matter what, but he never forgives people who do mortal sins?” She looked at me crossly and said, “Because you are not God, Master Izzo.” I think that was the moment that Catholicism fell apart for me. (I’m not a dogma kind of guy, though I respect those who are.) I did, however, become more careful when eating soup.
With five other siblings, my mother gave us baths in groups of three until we were too old for that sort of thing. Being a middle kid, I always got the shallow end; it was a big deal for me when I finally got to take a bath alone. I loved baths. The tub became an entire universe all my own, a place to think and imagine. I would keep adding hot water as it got tepid, keeping it as hot as I could stand it. Sometimes I’d overdo it, get dizzy, and experience an excruciating thirst. I would run the cold water in a tiny stream and put my mouth under the faucet, letting the cold-water trickle down my throat—it was true bliss! Really, there’s nothing like it. If you’ve ever stayed too long in a hot tub and reached for an ice-cold beer, you know what I mean!
As I did this, I would think about the souls in Hell, of what it must be like to be burning alive and to have that agony for all of eternity. Trying to imagine what eternity would be like, and burning for that long would blow my little catholic boy mind. I mean, would you get used to burning after a few centuries? Would they make it so that you couldn’t ever get used to it? How could anyone ever do something bad enough to deserve that? I thought that they must be very, very thirsty.
So as the cold water trickled down, I would ask God to send my cold drink to one of the souls in Hell. I would say, “I know that I am enjoying this—and oh man is it good—but I’m asking you please to send this feeling to just one (or maybe two?) of those burning people in Hell.” I did this at every bath for some time.
My saintly reverie would eventually be interrupted when my mother walked down the hall and banged on the door, realizing I was still in the tub.
(Bang-bang-bang!) “Gary! Are you still in there!? Come out of there before you turn into a prune! What are you doing in there so long?? “
(Defying your God and sending a cold drink to those poor bastards he locked away in Hell.) “Nothin’.”
I never asked anything from those anonymous souls, or from God or anyone else for my help–I just wanted to do it. I thought that God wouldn’t be too happy about my request seeing as how he sent them there in the first place, and that I would probably have to pay for it somewhere down the line, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to help.
I have a strong resonance with “lost souls”, always have; not sure why. I’m not saying that their damned, but I think maybe that’s the connection, literally—like a cord. I found that if you put enough lost souls in one place, they’re not lost anymore. You get a kind of Neverland.
I’ve also found that having a helpful nature isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least not for the unwary.
I get to help a lot of people in my work in the theatre, I guess that’s one of the reasons I chose it. I’m no Mother Teresa, but I’ve done well; I’ve saved careers, relationships, probably even lives. I’ve also lost a great many precious things for myself by helping in the wrong way.
Nobody likes needing help; nobody likes asking for help. I definitely include myself in this. We all like to imagine that where we have come, and who we have become, is the sole result of our own work and effort. We work hard, that should be enough, right? True, everything we are is the result of our work—no one can do that work for us. But who grants us the opportunity to do the work, the tools to work, how to work those tools, guidance on which direction to work to meet our own self-appointed outcomes? The reality is that none of us gets anywhere without allies, those around us that for some reason unknown to us, or perhaps even to themselves, are compelled to help us out.
Accepting help can be dangerous. Manipulation often disguises itself as aid and support from those who seek to take advantage of us. And worse, this isn’t always done with malicious intent. Some people engage in helping others in order to prove their worth to themselves without ever realizing it, and this can also be unhealthy.
I’ve been a White Knight, a Rescuer, and a Fixer; the hell they have wrought in my life cured me of these things long ago. I have nothing to prove anymore, and I am well convinced of my worth.
Why did helping certain people cost me so dearly?
I remember many times determining to help someone, knowing that they needed help; knowing I had the ability and power to help them, knowing that their particular outcome didn’t matter to me, that it was their outcome, their choice not mine; knowing I would have to challenge them harshly; knowing it would be difficult for them, knowing that I would never really matter to them, even knowing I would be resented for it, and realizing that I would forfeit any connection I would have to what I saw as a beautiful human being. I would hear the voice in my head asking me:
“Are you really willing to give this person up, just to help them?”
I would answer in what I thought was a pure expression of love, “Yes. Yes I am. Let’s go.”
Thus, I would throw myself on a bed of swords for someone I hardly knew, but valued highly, then wonder how doing good for another should leave me feeling so empty. I would do this over and over again, realizing each time that it earned me only their resentment, and a subtle, uncomfortable sense of their feeling indebted to me, neither of which I sought. How could I even be sure that they wouldn’t have gotten there without my help? Was it even worth it? Who am I to assume I can make a difference? I’m not God; I’m just a kid in a bathtub.
The vessel I used to hold these awful things, things I once believed to be the necessary residue of selfless, unconditional kindness, is finally full. I’ve had enough. I’ve lost too much that is precious to me. This isn’t noble; it isn’t kind; it is a fruitless act of compassion–like catching tears in the rain. I’m not sure what to do with this giant cup of resentment guck now that it’s full–though it might make a nice fertilizer for the garden.
It had to be full, of course, before I could hear the answer to my question. Why does helping cost me so much? It came not long ago, at great cost, in six simple, honest words: “I never asked for your help.”
The realization was swift and painful. I had never heard that before, and I never stopped to consider how demeaning it is to help someone in need without his or her permission. Our quests, our struggles, and our challenges are not just obstacles, they are also gifts. Although we may never navigate them all without allies, and the love and support of others, there are some that we need to overcome ourselves. They are for us alone to rise to, and help unasked for only takes from us the lessons they carry.
I want to ask forgiveness from everyone I ever helped without their permission, and in so doing disrespected them, and made them feel inadequate by robbing them of their right to struggle and suffer. I am sorry. I never meant any harm.
I am creating some new paths for myself as a result of this great insight that I no doubt should have realized years ago. I have a new set of rules for helping others. They’re not standard fare, but please consider them carefully, before you dismiss any of them.
- Never help a person who does not truly want help. (If they don’t want to obtain a new outcome, then no matter how much you help, it won’t make any difference anyway.)
- Never help a person unless they ask for help (If they can’t ask for help, it means they have a lesson they need to learn, don’t take that from them.)
- Never offer help without their offering something in return. (Their offer needn’t be much at all. It is the offering that is important. I’m not speaking of charity here so don’t misunderstand. Their offer is not for you the helper’s sake, but for theirs. )
- Stop helping if another does not at least offer you gratitude. (Gratitude should not be the reason you help, but not showing gratitude is your clue that they are not asking for your help.)
- Never help a person who only wants help and not a new outcome. (Some people are addicted to Need, they are black holes that will consume your soul, stay away from them!)
- Never help too much. (Always putting others first teaches them that you come second.)
- Remember that a person’s potential is not who they are now. (See the best in a person, but don’t assume they can give that to you.)
- Never help without permission.
- Stop catching tears in the rain.
My daughter loves baths too. We used to have many long, crazy bath-time adventures together. It’s sad to think she has gotten too old for that. I would have to add hot water several times on the longer ones. Her idea of hot is nothing like mine, but she would occasionally get overheated and very thirsty. She had a plastic measuring cup that somehow became a bath toy, and would thrust it at me and ask,
“Daddy, could you get me some cold, cold, cold, cold water in this, I am dying of thirst!”
I would rinse it in the sink and let the cold water run a while to fill it. Her eyes would roll back in her head as she drank it down.
“”Aaahaaaa… Oh my gosh that feels good!”
“I know… isn’t that great?”
“You know what daddy? If someone was dying of thirst in the desert, I would give them this.”
“I know you would sweat pea.” Then she would ask,
“Daddy, can I have some more?”
And I knew exactly what she was thinking.