For reasons you wouldn’t thank me for going into, I have spent a couple of hours this morning talking to someone with serious relationship problems. Sobbing, wailing, shouting, “Why?! Why did this have to happen?!” - I eventually calmed down and decided to try and help her.
‘Not the compassionate type then Antigone?’, you may say. But actually (she says defensively) it has nothing to do with being uncaring. And here is my defence: what should be the outcome of caring about someone who is in need? What should said caring amount to? Surely it should be doing something that would actually help them.
And this is where my problem lies. Or maybe more accurately, my dilemma. It’s not a new one for me as I used to work in care work and had to endlessly fight against the common public belief that you mollycoddle someone better. Nice idea but one that is utterly toothless. Not that there’s anything wrong with a cup of tea and some sympathy from time to time but for anything more complex than a rotten day it’s not going to cut the mustard in the long term. Potentially it feeds the self pitying (however justifiable) and prolongs the heartache.
Before you judge me to be totally heartless, can I add that tough love isn’t much of a solution either. This approach is mostly ego driven nonsense in my opinion. It makes the Tough Love Terminators amongst us feel somehow superior but invariably they offer no more real help than the cup of tea & sympathy types. They change nothing - other than the atmosphere in the room, of course.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who combines the two by throwing cups of tea in people’s faces for their own good, but beware.
So why is it that these two types seem to be the most popular - the acceptable faces of help? In a nutshell, because they are so much easier. Those who care - professionally, voluntarily or those just helping a mate - know it’s much more demanding than either of the above but are rarely acknowledged for it.
Helping means affecting actual change wherever you can and this entails battling away at getting people to face up to the truth and then ultimately helping themselves.
This is where society’s disesteemed ‘do-gooders’ sometimes fall short. I say ‘sometimes’ quite deliberately here as they get such a bad press it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. They may fail or even make situations worse but they are criticised and vilified by those people who are busy doing precisely nothing. And at least they’re trying. I bet some of that ‘good’ has got to hit the mark sometimes! Maybe the more practical types who dislike the pipe dreams of these gentler souls would care to lend a hand once in a while? Thought as much.
Doing the right thing is commonly the hardest option. Helping is no exception to this rule. Ongoing tea and sympathy can be used to avoid the responsibility of actually doing anything, tough love protects you from having to actually feel anything. Find the friend who’ll empathise and get cracking with a plan of action until you’re strong enough to take over the reigns, and you’re onto a winner.
So, back to my hapless friend, and the reason why I’m getting so defensive about those trying to offer real help. Turns out she doesn’t think it’s high time she started to let go of her now long finished relationship and take control of her life a little more. Neither does she think that changing the present is her only option because changing the past isn’t possible. And she doesn’t seem to think I’ve been much help.