There is a certain humbling and awakening moment when, as an adult, one comes in contact with one’s childhood list of wants and dreams. I had this very moment when I saw a handwritten list of what Christmas presents I would like as a 9 year old boy. All of them were painfully idealistic. All of them were about what I thought was best.
This list, this very mirror into my childhood, led me to think about the idea of helping and how the identity of the person that helps is shaped and shapes the way that one helps. That’s my abstraction of this experience, for in actuality, it reminded me of my own journey into understanding how to help others. For now, I won’t write in the abstract, even though I thought more about the impersonal dimensions of identity and helping. I would like to share what I saw when I looked at that mirror.
As a child I remember being told to ask for help, and that little boys should always ask of others if they need help. A part of me knew early on that helping, for a boy, wasn’t assumed; helping was what people asked for. This idea became gendered, and it was what I thought all little boys did. I didn’t question it at the time, because good boys shouldn’t question adults; I wanted to be a good boy. Then when I left my parent’s home, I began my collegiate studies in psychology, and I realized I used the word “good” to describe most everything in my life and by using the word “good” as my descriptive clutch, I described nothing at all.
I built a new working vocabulary in my collegiate studies and in my quest to help others. I learned that describing how to help others requires an acknowledgment of problems, a naming of symptoms, and following the arc of another’s life. I began to use more careful words for how the mind does the best that it can—for how the heart can break. I studied the mechanisms of loneliness, the ubiquity of self-medication, the delicate nature of beliefs, and the weight of words. I found authors, poets, theorists, and dusty quotes that reflected back to me experiences and truths that I didn’t have the words for; good boys don’t talk about messy things like other peoples feelings because they just help. I had to let go of being good so I could be more honest with myself, so that I could find happiness for myself, and so that I could actually help people. Then, after a continuous 23 years of formal studies in psychology and 6 years as a practicing psychotherapist, I returned to an image of my own childhood curiosity about the problems in the world and how we as fellow humans can help fix those problems. I saw those aspirations of a good boy, written with perfectionistic cursive, and I felt compassion for how much he would grow and how difficult that growth would be—how much he wanted happiness for himself and for others and how little he knew of it.
As a child I was in love with the idea of helping, but becoming an adult was my own process of unraveling this idea of helping.
As a child I was told to ask others if they needed my help. As an adult I now know otherwise. Now, I know better than to assume that other people have the clarity and wherewithal to fully explain and fix all of their problems; for when we are in pain we often lose our voices. I also know better than to rush in and tell people what their problems are or what would make them happy. This silences. This injures.
I know better than to perpetuate this idea of blaming the one who suffers, of blaming the victim, of focusing on something other that the pain and hurt of another person. This further wounds, distances, and shames another person for their experience.
I know better than to be a good boy. If I am to help another person, if I am ever to make a real difference, I cannot offer some generic or good advice. I have to connect to another person to really help, and in connecting to another person I cannot let my own thoughts, feelings, or identity go unexamined. If I am to help others I can’t reinforce notions of good and bad, as if I am some arbiter livelihood. As if I know how to live your life better than you do.
Wanting to help others, I have learned, is different than helping others. For in wanting to help others we unintentionally limit others and limit ourselves; if I know how to help you before I know you, then I don’t really know you and I don’t really know how to help you. I had to become an adult, and abandon notions of prescribed helping so that I could develop my sense of security, a confidence, and the skills necessary to help others. I had to learn how to be with myself, so that I can be with others.
I look at this list through an analyst’s gaze. I see cognitive dimensions, identity formation, relational sensitivity, foundational schemas, interpersonal concerns, age related stressors, and I see a little blond boy wanting to be good. A fearful little boy that will learn to admit his wrongs. A defiant little boy that gives answers too quickly. A curious little boy one that will learn to sit with questions longer. A hopeful little boy that is not good, but is free to be happy.