Through my most grievous fault

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My impulse to ‘help’ others is deeply ingrained. It is an impulse so strong that I find myself holding the lift open for the next person who might still be metres away to the consternation of other people already in the lift who are keen to get off. My do-gooding can hold some people up as much as it might be helpful for others.

My husband hates it.
‘Stop social working,’ he says. ‘Stop being such a do-gooder.’

When I first met my husband and told him of my qualification then as a social worker he said with a twinkle in his eye: ‘Social workers are mawkish dabblers in the dirty washing of others’.

The saying has stuck, but please all you social workers, do not take offense. He meant it only as a joke, but we all know that jokes carry kernels of truthfulness.

Do-gooders are boring people. If I meet such a person in life I tend to dislike them. I see myself reflected there. It is an appalling trait masquerading as helpful.

My mother’s mother whom I met only once when she came to Australia to spend several months with her oldest daughter’s family now settled here, suffered from scruples, or so my mother has told me.

Scruples are the knotty bits at the end of ropes, thick stubby short ropes attached to a handle that the monks used in days gone by as a means of whipping themselves. They walked along the streets their backs bloodied and striped in raised welts from their self-flagellation.
‘Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.’ Through my fault. My own fault. Through my most grievous fault.

They had sinned. Sins of impurity, sins of selfishness, sins of lust and of greed and they must atone for these sins to a God whom in their minds derived some satisfaction from their bloody mortification.

My grandmother took herself to the priest for confession and although she did not use a scruple stick, she used her words.
‘Father I have sinned. You can never know how badly.’
‘In what way have you sinned my child?’
‘I cannot say, Father. I cannot find words to tell you how bad I have been, but God knows and how can he ever forgive me?’

The priest by now familiar with my grandmother’s litany of remorse tried to cut her short.
‘Say three Hail Marys. I absolve you now, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’.

My grandmother shuffled from the church after saying her prayers, went back to her home and her kitchen, her husband, her children and her sinfulness only to return later that day with the same complaint.
‘Father, you do not realise how bad I have been.’
The priest tried again, day after day, week after week, month after month, but to no avail.

On her trip to Australia my grandmother worried. She wore a summer dress with pencil thin straps over her shoulders. Too much flesh visible. But in the heat of Australia, my mother reasoned, many women dressed this way. For my grandmother, another sin for the priest back home.

When she returned to Holland, my grandmother took to her bed. She was 67 years old. The scruples had turned into cancerous knots in her belly and she died.

I think of her often when I consider this pressure in me to relieve myself of the burden of my existence. I have long ago relinquished any belief in such a cruel and heartless god as one who might demand relentless recompense, and yet the need to help goes on.

The monks who flagellated themselves in the eyes of the people and of their God were motivated by a desire to punish themselves. Helping others compulsively has similar overtones. For which reason we must set limits on such impulses and allow others to help us in turn. Turn the selfishness of selflessness into a shared exchange, a give and take.

Lesson learned?

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75 Comments on Through my most grievous fault

  1. Niamh B
    August 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm (7 years ago)

    I wouldn't see helping others as boring, but yes – everything in moderation – give AND take. I heard recently that percieved inequality in a relationship is bad for health – even for the person who feels they are getting more from it than the other party. Food for thought. Sometimes helping yourself is the best way to help others

    Reply
  2. jabblog
    August 13, 2010 at 3:01 pm (7 years ago)

    I had not realised the derivation of scruples though I knew of self-flagellation.
    I laughed at the vision of you holding doors open for people some distance away. I once waited for another car to turn even though I had the right of way. Motorists behind me were not quite so 'selfless' and let me know. Yes, lesson learned 😉

    Reply
  3. Ann Best
    August 13, 2010 at 3:20 pm (7 years ago)

    We can't take away the sins of others. We can only work on our own. But "do-gooders"? I think it depends on what kind of help people need, and how we might be able to help them. There are things we can do for others, and things we can't. I think of the "Serenity Prayer": God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

    A thought-provoking post.
    Ann

    Reply
  4. The Weaver of Grass
    August 13, 2010 at 3:47 pm (7 years ago)

    You are not alone in this point of view Elizabeth – I found it such interesting food for thought – and it also brought a knowing smile to my lips.

    Reply
  5. Kittie Howard
    August 13, 2010 at 4:18 pm (7 years ago)

    I hadn't a clue how scruples had come into our language so thank you for that most interesting info. I'm not a fan of extremes, more a fan of For everthing there is a season, turn, turn, turn. If this makes any sense. Sorry your grandmother died so young.

    Reply
  6. Marylinn Kelly
    August 13, 2010 at 5:12 pm (7 years ago)

    In some of us, the familiarity of love based on being some shifting interpretation of good led to many unnecessary years of continuing that attempted goodness. After time and painful introspection, an authentic self emerges, balancing the giving and receiving of kindness; we are at our best giving from the heart and not the mind. We no longer have to worry that someone is keeping score.

    Reply
  7. Jim Murdoch
    August 13, 2010 at 5:47 pm (7 years ago)

    But what if you don’t have sin to cripple your day-to-day life, what then? Then you have propriety. In the olden days ‘propriety’ meant one’s true nature. I get that. We don’t want people to see us for who we truly are, uncouth, lacking in culture, dragged up. The religioso believe that God is watching; the rest of us assume that other people are watching.

    They always ask you that at interviews, when they’re not asking you what fruit you think you are, they ask you what your biggest fault is. The trick is, of course, to list a ‘fault’ that also can be viewed in a positive light like yours.

    I had a friend some years back who couldn’t say no to anyone. She was a seamstress with a talent for invisible mending and people were always asking her to make cigarette burns and the like go away which she could do but you have no idea how much work is involved in something like that. She was self-employed along with her husband and so she developed a ploy. When someone asked Elizabeth to do a little job she didn’t really want to her pat reply was: “I’ll just have to check with Tommy,” who invariably said no but never to their face. His wife would come back and say something like, “I’ve just had a word with Tommy and we really can’t at the moment.” Of course most of the time Tommy was never consulted at all.

    There are people who do good because that’s what they do and then there are do-gooders. The former are all around us – they’re just being themselves – the latter however make too much of a meal of it for my liking. They want the good that they do to be acknowledged. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get hurt when people don’t say thank you or take me for granted because I’m only human but I’m not trying to buy my way into the kingdom of heaven one good dead at a time. That’s the difference.

    Reply
  8. Lei
    August 13, 2010 at 6:48 pm (7 years ago)

    You are absolutely right. I have observed what could be worse with such people — they tend to be nice and helpful to outsiders, but cruel with their own family members, constantly using them as a trash bin for their own emotional burdens and making them bare the blames for their failures and unhappiness. They are often self-righteous and incapable of self-reflection, since they get so many praises and thankful remarks from those they have helped and been kind to.

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  9. Robert the Skeptic
    August 13, 2010 at 10:03 pm (7 years ago)

    As a (former) social worker, I thoroughly enjoy being called "mawkish"… and I don't even know what that is!

    I recognize the phrase from the "Act of Contrition"; if I recall my Catholic indoctrination, one is supposed to make a fist and tap it to one's chest while saying it.

    The concept that I was with fault just by virtue of my existence was one of the 112 reasons why I shed religion and Catholicism in particular. I don't know what people see in it… but then, I'm too much of a "do gooder".

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  10. Marja
    August 13, 2010 at 10:54 pm (7 years ago)

    Dag elisabeth Very well written and an interesting subject. Injecting guilt in people has a purpose, obviously that others do not do the bad thing again. Doing that (and flagelation as an extreme way of dealing with it) doesn't serve any purpose in my eyes. The intentions might be good but the consequences might be worse.
    It was the patronising way of the church of controlling people just like the authorative parent does.
    I believe in the style to teach people and children that there are consequeces for behaviour and that they are responsible for their own behaviour. Educate people so they understand when something they do is wrong and how they can do something about it instead of feeling guilty.
    If children do something out of guilt for others they might feel angry afterwards instead of the pleasure it can give.
    WHen people just take responsibility they can move on and grow and reach a state where there is room for giving which becomes rewarding. A giving which comes from a place of love.
    This is not always possible or easy but I think it is something to grow towards too, after throwing guilt or any form of self punishment in the rubbish

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  11. steven
    August 13, 2010 at 11:26 pm (7 years ago)

    elisabeth i learned a lot from this post so thankyou.
    i have never believed in an emotional God. it makes little sense and really only serves the needs of people who need to feel that there is always someone or something judging them. Oh and that someone or something is an amplified echo of their own sense of "right" and "wrong". in the fullness of our lives we weave and bob and dance all over from this place to that and in the course of so doing almost certainly cross some line – always invisible – but there enough to act as a moral or ethical or behavioural or emotional arbiter. if we hurt someone in some way then we can express our remorse if it's felt. or not. my own sense is to act in the way that brings the greatest goodness into the world. it means that you have to think about your choices to be accountable to yourself if that is what you choose. i think that it would be for the greatest good if i stopped writing this comment now!!! steven

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  12. Bonnie
    August 14, 2010 at 2:17 am (7 years ago)

    A sense of obligation to do good and help others often arises from an ingrained need to please. Why the need to please? Because some part of us thinks we are not worthy enough to be accepted otherwise. Working on our own self-acceptance and self-worth, can eliminate the 'do-gooderism'.

    Dr. John Sarno has identified this trait as one often found in people with chronic illness. Worth really looking at where this impulse comes from, how it is not all 'good', and that it can be connected to self-loathing. Good luck!

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  13. Annandale Dream Gazette
    August 14, 2010 at 4:35 am (7 years ago)

    Wanting to help is a good & kind impulse.

    I think it also sometimes has to do with being a witness, as well.

    Trying to help is an active response to witnessing something–it places the witness in an active role, rather than passively witnessing, listening. The action of trying to help might even function to ease the discomfort of the witness at times.

    It's hard to know when it's best to try to help and when it's best to just witness. Sometimes that's all that the person wants: to be seen, and heard. My guess is that most people who appear as if they want to be rescued, mostly just want to be heard. Also sometimes the first step in overcoming self flagellation is to air it openly and be able to look at it in broad daylight.

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  14. Kath Lockett
    August 14, 2010 at 6:23 am (7 years ago)

    My mother was a do-gooder which I thought was pretty daggy growing up, but at a similar age (that she was then) I find myself becoming a do-gooder myself.

    Why? To feel like I'm worth something, I guess. I have a family who love me, but there's a big part of me that wants to make a difference out there, however small. Helping an old lady read the labels on the spice jars at
    Safeway; picking up rubbish; babysitting or offering my usual paid service for free – they help ME much more than the other person because depression does such a sterling job of reducing you to a huddled, crying ball of despair and insecurity. Sometimes just a clean street or handing over a happy six year old with chocolate on her face pushes the black dog a bit further away.

    You touched on letting others help you, the do-gooder too, sometimes. I think that's when my migraines come in; to force me to stop completely and just let family, life and commitments stop or flow as they must.

    This may be an inane example, but with Naomi Campbell in the news for being annoyed at having her time wasted on such a pesky issue as receiving a bag of blood diamonds for free; most sensible people have read about it and thought, "What has SHE done for anyone else but herself?" THAT, to my protestant-raised mind, is one of the worst things you could say about a person and hope that it never gets said about me.

    Word verification – Noplogi: when the commenter realises that they're daggy and insufficient but is finally learning to accept it with a grateful smile.

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  15. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 7:47 am (7 years ago)

    To me it's the fact that helping others is anything but boring, Niamh B that troubles me.

    I admire the invisible and anonymous donors, the ones who do not want it known how much they have given.

    For me part of the pleasure of giving is the gratitude in the other person's eyes, especially when it comes to my children and my grandson. I love to give to them more than I sometimes should.

    At least with my children I've been able to draw a line for their own good. It's ever so much harder with my grandson. But I figure my daughter is good at setting limits. He'll still learn that he can't have everything he wants. I can be the adoring and generous grandmother, though I know it can be a trap for both parties.

    Thanks, Niamh.

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  16. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 7:49 am (7 years ago)

    It's funny, Janice, I like to hold the lift for the stragglers, but once in the car, if in a hurry, the other side of me comes out and I can be as impatient as the next person.

    If I have lots of time I might be more generous in giving way on the road, but that's rare for me these days. Thanks, Janice.

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  17. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 7:55 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks, Ann. I have a mixed relationship with the serenity prayer.

    I think the notion is good but there came a time in my childhood when my mother practised 'serenity' day and night to help her to overcome certain difficulties and it nearly drove me berserk.

    But from my adult perspective I can see the value of the sentiments the serenity prayer espouses, and I agree with you, it's not just a case of helping. It's a case of for whom, towards whom and under what motivation.

    You can think of the patronizing attitudes of certain missionaries in days gone by and wince at how much they may have helped and simultaneously undermined the lives of people who would have preferred Perhaps to stick with their own cultural practices.

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  18. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 7:57 am (7 years ago)

    I like to imagine your knowing smile, Weaver. Thanks.

    And Kittie I'm glad to have helped you with the meaning of the word scruples. You're right of course, moderation is the ideal.

    Thanks.

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  19. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 8:03 am (7 years ago)

    Marylinn, giving from the heart and not from some quantifiable score is the way to go, but sometimes when we feel hurt or deprived it might be harder to manage this.

    I'm of the view that generosity begets generosity and it's best taught by example. Hopefully as we age we get a better grip on this, though sadly not always. Some people get meaner and less generous as they age. They worry more about things running out, perhaps as consequence of an aging body that makes them feel they have to hold onto more of their resources to compensate for their lack. Others become more generous, they no longer care about hoarding. they're inclined to give it all away.

    It's strange how I've moved from helping as an act onto generosity in the business of giving. They're linked of course.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Marylinn.

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  20. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 8:17 am (7 years ago)

    'The religious believe that God is watching; the rest of us assume that other people are watching.' Is that so, Jim? I think you may be right, at least to dome extent, but the religious people I've know have also been worried about what other people think, maybe even more than the irreligious, who are more careless perhaps to begin with.

    Is you seamstress friend really called Elizabeth? It might be a link. My namesake, Saint Elisabeth of Hungary is a woman who also gave generously of her time and resources. The story I heard as a child and which I sometimes think became part of my script follows: Elisabeth loved to give to the poor but her wealthy landowning husband objected.

    One day against his wishes, Elisabeth took a basket of food to the poor and her husband came after her unexpectedly to catch her in the act of giving. When he pulled off the covers from the basket of food by a miracle, the food had turned into flowers.

    I sometimes think I or someone else in my family may have made this story up because in my research I have not yet found its equivalent, though Elisabeh of Hungary actually existed and she was reputedly generous to her people.

    Finally I agree with you, Jim, we all need to offer and to be shown basic courtesy and gratitude. Otherwise we'd be a rather revolting and selfish group of people, and I children would never learn to share.

    Sharing stops wars.

    Thanks, Jim

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  21. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 8:21 am (7 years ago)

    I think you are right, Lei. Some excessively generous people can be cruel to those closet to them, as if those closest are merely an extension and must do exactly as the are told.

    Seemingly generous in public when it suits, such false people can be cruel in private when no one is looking. They are hypocrites.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response here, Lei.

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  22. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 8:25 am (7 years ago)

    'Mawkish' Robert, as I understand, means maudlin or insincerely emotional. It's a terrific word. I'm glad as an ex social worker you did not take offence, nor did I.

    As for the 'mea culpas' they are as you describe and a good reason to avoid religious indoctrination.

    Thanks, Robert.

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  23. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 8:34 am (7 years ago)

    Marja, the indoctrination of children into knowledge of how best to behave through guilt is an unfortunate practice and I agree with you it does not help people to give with love.

    Thanks, Marja for your thoughtful comment here.

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  24. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 8:43 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks, Steven.

    I nearly put in the words 'right and wrong' in my response to Marja's comment above and then hesitated.

    The notion of right and wrong is too rigid, too one dimensional. Right and wrong thinking can be dangerous. It tends to absolutes and does not take in the complexity of how we might best struggle to behave and live in this difficult and beautiful world.

    I did not feel you needed to stop your comment, either, not mid stream as it were. Though I too when I comment sometimes find myself sounding more dogmatic than I intend, more certain than I feel and more convinced of my position than I ever am.

    If that's why you stopped short, I understand, but you do not come across this way at all Steven.

    In your blog, especially, you have such a beautiful way of struggling to put words and images to the imponderables. Thanks.

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  25. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 8:46 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks, Bonnie. Illness and self loathing as an inducement towards an excessive desire to help. I've never thought about it like this but I can imagine there are many scenarios and personality characteristics that might lend themselves to people trying to find ways of coping that might cover up other motives.

    Thanks for your good wishes, Bonnie.

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  26. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 8:52 am (7 years ago)

    I'm glad you offer another perspective here, Lynn from Annandale Dream Gazette. I think we need it.

    I can get a tad too cynical at times, particularly when it comes to my own motives. And once again I'm grateful to you for pointing out the issue of bearing witness. What a powerful force it can be.

    I think you are right, too that being able to help can be a way of reducing one's passivity and helplessness into an active stance.

    It was certainly my conscious wish as a fourteen-year-old. I wanted to study social work when I finished school because I wanted to help people from families like mine. I wanted to make a difference.

    Thanks, Lynn.

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  27. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 9:01 am (7 years ago)

    Kath, you are not a do-gooder in the sense I meant it here. I can tell from your wonderful, vivid and alive blog that you are generous to a fault. I can also see that you are honest and you do not fawn over people or help as a means of ingratiating yourself.

    No, Kath, your generosity is the sort that makes the world go round, that binds communities, that helps people to see the value in one another.

    As for 'noplogi…when the commenter realises that they're daggy and insufficient but is finally learning to accept it with a grateful smile' this does not apply here. It never applies to you, as far as I'm concerned. you couch wisdom in humour in a way that makes learning a treat.

    Your comment about Naomi Campbell adds layers of depth to the opposite of do-gooding: rapacious, mindless, self centredness that is breathtaking in the extreme – that is if the media report her stance accurately and we've no reason to believe otherwise.

    Thanks Kath.

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  28. Jim Murdoch
    August 14, 2010 at 9:07 am (7 years ago)

    I was actually being a bit facetious with that opening remark, Lis. Most of the religious people I’ve known have been very conscious of other people and how they are judged by them, some, because they believe their actions reflect on God but others because they simply like to feel superior.

    And, yes, my friend was called Elizabeth although it’s a good fifteen years since I’ve seen her. All the stuff about Elisabeth of Hungary was interesting. Discounting Saint Christopher and Saint Nicholas I know nothing about saints.

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  29. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2010 at 9:40 am (7 years ago)

    I'm not good at picking up 'facetious' on line, Jim. Sorry.

    Fancy not knowing any saints other than Saints, Christoper and Nicholas. You've missed out Jim, big time. Every member of my large family is named after one.

    There's an added advantage to saints that comes in the form of miracles and relics.

    There was a terrific program on the radio last Tuesday here in Australia on our Book Show on the topic of relics: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2010/08/bsw_20100811_1023.mp3.

    If you tune in soon – they keep them up as audio for a few weeks I think – you'll be able to hear about the relic, the Holy Prepuce of Jesus, his holy foreskin, that once traveled in multiples.

    I love a good relic story. One day I might even blog about them.

    Thanks again, Jim.

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  30. Christine
    August 14, 2010 at 11:12 am (7 years ago)

    Gotta laugh!! I like your husband's comment…and the warning therein. We need such monitors at times.

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  31. Dave King
    August 14, 2010 at 11:20 am (7 years ago)

    Picking up one of Jim's points, which also occurred to me reading your post: it is true that almost all faults can be virtues and vice versa. The trick is to bring them out appropriately and to use them proportionately.

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  32. all ways 11 o'clock
    August 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm (7 years ago)

    Elisabeth – I like very much where you go with your thoughts to the page. Your last post has left me thinking in awe of ourselves and now with this one, how we do things that are maybe selfish in seemingly selfless ways. Where you go with these beautiful written pieces-thank you for sharing.

    ~robert

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  33. Woman in a Window
    August 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm (7 years ago)

    Elisabeth, you have turned me 'round with this post. I have gone from being definitely boring, to being such a sinner that I am in great need of self flagellation.

    When in university I remember being very fascinated to learn of the flagellating monks during the plagues. It made no sense to me, and yet all of the sense in the world.

    I oscillate somewhere in between helpful, selfish, and walking with a scruple cane. How do we make sense of this? But I let it be, look at it from a bit of a distance, as it seems to be my nature.

    Astrology means little to me other than story and myth. However, I wonder if you are Gemini? I am.

    Incredibly interesting read.

    xo
    erin

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  34. Roland D. Yeomans
    August 14, 2010 at 3:33 pm (7 years ago)

    Thanks for giving me the origin of the word "scruples," Eliabeth.

    It is not the doing of the good alone that is important. It is the why of that doing.

    If I help others to appease my own guilt or to puff up my vanity, it is as if I were doing bad, for it is selfishly done. And I am fooling no one but myself.

    It said over and over again that children loved Jesus. I cannot see a boring person being loved by children. So if I'm boring, I am missing the mark somewhere, focusing more on me than on making hurting others smile or laugh in days that sometimes are all too grim.

    Whew! I got carried away didn't I?

    You wrote a great, thought-provoking post. Roland

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  35. Ms. Moon
    August 14, 2010 at 5:57 pm (7 years ago)

    Professional do-gooders get to you after awhile because you can never pay them back. I often wonder if they don't have that motive at the back of their mind- to make everyone feel bad about never measuring up their standards of "help."
    I'll ask for help if I need it and if it is freely given, I am grateful and I give help when it is wanted and my heart says "yes."
    Otherwise, it's just beating yourself up to please "god" and make yourself feel better about yourself in some odd selfish way.
    Well. That's how I feel about it.

    Reply
  36. Eryl Shields
    August 14, 2010 at 10:11 pm (7 years ago)

    This post and some of the comments it has received has reminded me of a lecture I once attended on ethics in ancient Greek philosophy. If I remember correctly Aristotle had it that each virtue was sandwiched between two vices: bravery has cowardice on one side and foolhardiness on the other, for example. It now seems to me that selflessness is sandwiched by two kinds of selfishness: the sort that ignores the needs of others entirely, and the sort that uses the needs of others for its own ends.

    I must confess that I can have a tendency to be overly 'helpful' myself at times, it's something I have to watch.

    I do feel terribly sorry for your grandmother, she couldn't have been at all happy for a long time.

    As ever you give me lots to think about, Elizabeth.

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  37. Elizabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 7:00 am (7 years ago)

    I have a theory about the mostly angry do-gooders in my culture. They are the mostly women who run the show, who raise the money and have the parties for "charity." They are rarely happy doing these things and, more often than not, complain and harp and obsess. I think they need to WORK and work hard. The giving seems relentless and exhausting and makes them into martyrs. No one loves a martyr, I don't think, and it's only saints who are so signified AFTER their deaths. Thanks for an interesting post as always.

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  38. Marshall-Stacks
    August 15, 2010 at 7:26 am (7 years ago)

    The illness of your GrandMother confirms my belief in the Mind-Body connection.
    Bonnie's comment above is nearest to my opinion. My own altruism is a manifestation of low self-esteem (which in turn was established in me by a psychotic mother).
    and I have fibromyalgia (diagnosed by rheumatologist 2001) so that also supports a theory above.

    Of course it might be good if everybody just wanted to help everybody else all the time.
    We all need somebody to lean on!

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  39. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 8:07 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks, Christine. It is often those closest to us who can point out our flaws. Mind you, my husband made this comment well before we really knew one another, in the early days of our relationship. Maybe then it was to test my mettle. If I took too much offense, perhaps I could not continue on the journey with him.

    It is now, as they say, ancient history, but the saying sticks in my mind for all its bluntness and force.

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  40. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 8:09 am (7 years ago)

    Dave, you and Jim both have picked up on a point elaborated by others here, too. Namely the two sidedness of most of our actions, more than two sided I'd say, multi-sided.

    Our motivations tend to move around.

    Thanks, Dave.

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  41. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 8:12 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks for your kind words, Robert from All ways at Eleven.

    We are such multifaceted and complex creatures, we humans. I love to explore this complexity through my own idiosyncrasies in the hope that some of it will reverberate for others.

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  42. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 8:14 am (7 years ago)

    Like you Erin, Woman at a Window, I too 'oscillate somewhere in between helpful, selfish, and walking with a scruple cane'.

    It can keep me awake at night if I'm not careful. In the end all we can do is our best, but it helps to reflect on what that might be in order to better guide our actions.

    Thanks, Erin.

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  43. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 8:21 am (7 years ago)

    You're right, I think, Roland it is most often the 'why' of things that matters.

    I went to a terrific talk last week where the presenter, Don Miller, talked about the importance of the interrogative words, the whens, the hows, the whats. He considered the 'whys' to be the most important of all these words. The why is closest to childhood and curiosity.

    Children see through so much false hood. It's sad they have to grow up and lose most of that innocece and vision, but it'd be tragic for them if they didn't grow up. They probably could not survive in the world.
    Thanks, Roland.

    Reply
  44. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 8:25 am (7 years ago)

    You have picked up on the quandary, Ms Moon. I can see from your blog that you're a great and generous giver, but as you say you give freely when it's also offered in return.

    Professional giving comes from a different basis perhaps but something in it needs to be offered freely as well I think, otherwise it's not likely to be of much help.

    Thanks, Ms Moon.

    Reply
  45. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 8:42 am (7 years ago)

    I recognise Aristotle's notion of 'virtue … sandwiched between two vices', Eryl, and your further thought that 'selflessness is sandwiched by two kinds of selfishness: the sort that ignores the needs of others entirely, and the sort that uses the needs of others for its own ends.'

    There's a load of accuracy in these thoughts, Eryl, and then we need to consider the more positive side of things as well, the genuine selflessness, the stuff that the story of king Solomon alerts us to.

    Do you know the story? I've written about it before somewhere on this blog.

    Two mothers are fighting over the one baby. King Solomon offers to resolve the dispute by cutting the baby in half, one half each. The real mother steps forward and says no. The other so-called mother can have the baby.

    It is clear that she would rather have no baby for herself but that her child should live.

    The moral is self evident – true selflessness is not possessive and it facilitates life.

    Thanks Eryl.

    Reply
  46. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 8:47 am (7 years ago)

    I agree, Elizabeth, martyrs have a way of making us feel guilty. In some ways this might be their reward. Our suffering in return for theirs.

    It's clear from most of the comments here that most folks are of the view that too much do-goodery is questionable, while some helpfulness is necessary in both directions.

    Thank you, Elizabeth.

    Reply
  47. Ann
    August 15, 2010 at 8:55 am (7 years ago)

    I came from a Roman Catholic background so I can follow your story of the Scruples and confession. I am not a RC now, but when people talk about it , I understand.

    I didn't know ordinary people use Scruples, I thought only the Calamite sisters did.

    So sad she died such a way. Hope she wasn't in pain.

    BTW, the dinner was fine.

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  48. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2010 at 8:56 am (7 years ago)

    The mind body connection is irrefutable, Helena, but still we tend to divide the two, mind and body. Perhaps because we cannot see the links as readily as we might.

    My grandmother's stomach cancer seems to have been linked to her anxious personality and yet from what I know about the rest of my large and extended family no one else has copped this diagnosis.

    No one else seems to have manifested their neurotic tendencies in the same way.

    Still we all have to die of something and clearly something familiar and familial will show up for most of us in my tribe.

    To me the heart is a likely candidate. My father died of a heart attack, complicated by smoking induced emphysema. In my mind it was more a case of a 'broken' heart. It's a long story.

    I hope your ailments don't get you too much down. You seem so self-reflective, unlike my grandmother. And I'm sure self reflection helps, though not the incessant and agonising rumination of my grandmother.

    Thanks, Helena.

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  49. Rachel Cotterill
    August 15, 2010 at 2:29 pm (7 years ago)

    Interesting reading. It can be much too easy to always put oneself last… and I'm sure it isn't for the best.

    Reply
  50. Kirk Jusko
    August 15, 2010 at 7:45 pm (7 years ago)

    Count me among those who did not know the origins of the word 'scruple'.

    Elisabeth, are you familiar with the Flannery O'Conner short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?
    For some reason your little essay brought that to mind. A character says toward the end "She would have been a good woman had somebody just been holding a gun to her all her life." Probably not the point you wanted to make, but I was reminded of it nonetheless.

    O'Conner, incidentally, was Roman Catholic, but her take on her religion seemed much different than of the Vatican's.

    Reply
  51. angryparsnip
    August 16, 2010 at 3:07 am (7 years ago)

    I think one needs to lead the best life one can at any given moment.

    cheers, parsnip

    Reply
  52. Elisabeth
    August 16, 2010 at 4:57 am (7 years ago)

    Catholicism, guilt and self flagellation seem to go and in hand, Ann.

    As I understand it, most Catholic orders, priests and nuns practised some form of self denial – inherent in their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – with self flagellation at the extreme end.

    Thanks, Ann.

    Reply
  53. Elisabeth
    August 16, 2010 at 4:59 am (7 years ago)

    Rachel, it is perhaps easier to put yourself last than in the front running. At least that way no one need compete with you.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Reply
  54. TaraDharma
    August 16, 2010 at 5:01 am (7 years ago)

    I do good in hopes that others will do good for me. Thee world is full of evil acts, why not do what I can to fill it with compassion? I do good because it connects me in a positive way with the human race. There is the need for balance, of course, and one should not cause self-harm in the helping of others.

    Being good to others gives me peace and satisfaction. That's okay with me.

    Reply
  55. Elisabeth
    August 16, 2010 at 6:12 am (7 years ago)

    I've not read Flannery o'Connor's story Kirk but I Googled it to find a further connection beyond O'Connor's Catholicism. It's there alright, at least by the sound of things.

    Here's a cut and paste from a website that analyses some of the elements of the story:

    'The grandmother’s ideologies are prominent because she is the main character of the story. Her persistence to adhering to the codes of her upbringing are prevalent through the short story. Although she believes herself as better than every one else (due to her noble blood and being a Southern Christian), she is still racist and relies more on keeping appearances than actually being a good and moral person.'

    To read more see: http://modern-american-fiction.suite101.com/article.cfm/flannery_oconnors_a_good_man_is_hard_to_find

    Your association to O'Connor's story pleases me, because I think it is what I have been hinting at, however unconscious I may have been in the writing of this post.

    Thanks, Kirk.

    Reply
  56. Elisabeth
    August 16, 2010 at 11:08 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks Parsnip and TaraDharma. You both offer a similar message – to do the best you can. I couldn't agree with you more.

    Reply
  57. Brent Robison
    August 16, 2010 at 6:50 pm (7 years ago)

    Intent counts for a lot, and I can forgive the inevitable human failings. While I don't like hypocrisy or self-righteousness or martyrdom, I'll take the do-gooders any day over the do-badders, of which there are many, in every disguise. I'm talking about people who employ phrases like "collateral damage." They need some sincere self-flagellation.

    Reply
  58. Alberto Oliver
    August 17, 2010 at 7:23 am (7 years ago)

    I wonder, if people who have such an imperious need for helping others, are nothing but obeying to a desperated and selfish impulse. I must admit Elisabeth,,that sometimes i behave that way and indeed, many times i even get in troubles by doing so. And the true is that must of the times i try to be helpful because in that way i feel some kind of, let´s call it a personal revenge, for the help i never received when i was younger. But then, is this a valuable attitude of my part?? or just a personal expiation?? If i would really want to help others,,should i be more objective and think on the very personal situation of the people in trouble?? Nevertheless, by doing so,,the need for helping would lose the passion that feeds it and i would become nothing but a witness of someone else´s disgrace.

    Reply
  59. Alberto Oliver
    August 17, 2010 at 7:33 am (7 years ago)

    And when it comes to religions,,it is suspicious for me to see how much their message of suffering and remorseful have been tied with the interest of the most tyranic and oppressive regimes in history. Indeed it is quite useful for the leaders to make their people believe that by a live of lack and resignation they would achieve a goal and a reward that was waiting for them in an afterworld. It comes to my mind the role of the Church during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain, a church that was more like a sort of moral police rather than a relief for the people, by convincing them that thing were the way they are because of God´s will. I have nothing against religions, but with the people that use them looking after their own more than mundane purpose.

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  60. Elisabeth
    August 17, 2010 at 11:26 am (7 years ago)

    Brent, we're enduring an election at the moment where people are using different versions of this type of spin. It is disturbing because as you suggest it hides the essential 'badness' underneath.
    Thanks, Brent.

    Reply
  61. Elisabeth
    August 17, 2010 at 11:33 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks, Alberto, twice over. I can imagine you as a helpful person. And I can also understand that being helpful becomes your 'personal revenge' on those who did not help you enough when you were young.

    It's not such a terrible thing. In fact, I would say it is not so much revenge as a way of overcoming revenge.

    There is a saying that 'the best form of revenge is to do well'. Helping others as you describe here is very much about 'doing well'.

    As for the hypocrisy of certain churches over the centuries, it is well known. 'Shit in a silk stocking' I call it, a perversion of the essence of what the church is meant to represent turned on its head.

    Thanks, Alberto.

    Reply
  62. Ruth
    August 19, 2010 at 9:13 pm (7 years ago)

    Oh dear, I wish I had time to read all the comments, but I don't.

    Your post is powerful. I did not know the root of scruples. Whether they turn literally into cancer or not, physically, they are cancer. This guilt we have embedded in us takes years to practice out of, if it ever does really go away.

    Helpfulness in some way is relieving our own guilt, and also trying to control. We want to help someone out of their grief, suffering, or whatever sadness we perceive. But I remember when my mom wanted to relieve me of any given melancholy, and I would tell her, I don't need to stop being sad right now, or have this problem resolved instantly. It is not easy just to BE and allow another person to live through what they are living.

    Reply
  63. Phoenix
    August 19, 2010 at 9:40 pm (7 years ago)

    I'll be the first to admit that I have martyr-like tendencies. I know where I got them; I know why I have them; we don't have to get into that because it's all been said and done.

    Someone once told me "What blesses one should bless all" and that kind of changed everything. Suddenly it wasn't okay for me to sacrifice my own well-being even if it benefited everyone else. Suddenly it was okay that I was doing the best I could, although the guilt that I'm not doing enough still tries to break through the front door of my home sometimes, jaws snapping.

    What blesses one blesses all. Give and take, an exchange of energy, love for love for love for love. No more fear, no more guilt, no more self-condemnation.

    Just love. For ourselves and, as it follows, for others. But always ourselves first.

    Always.

    Reply
  64. Brent Robison
    August 20, 2010 at 12:13 am (7 years ago)

    Phoenix, I'm with you.

    Also, Elisabeth, I realized I felt uncomfortable with my comment about "do-badders." Truth is, my view is that individual humans are not evil; some have just neglected to investigate and embrace their shadow. Thus they are controlled by it and do evil deeds while imagining they do good.

    Self-inquiry is the key. And to get back on topic, diligent self-inquiry helps one see to what degree one's do-gooding is genuine.

    But let's remember, being helpful to others is, after all, helpful. Good is good.

    Reply
  65. farthestnorth1
    August 20, 2010 at 5:46 am (7 years ago)

    A fascinating blog, self-deprecating, touching and funny. I love the way you weave threads of other people's lives into your personal reflections. Are you doing as you would be done by? You say you dislike do-gooders. Perhaps a way of moderating the impulse would be to be more passive, just to be there by listening. You do this anyway, in my experience, in friendships and no doubt in your work.

    Reply
  66. Elisabeth
    August 20, 2010 at 6:13 am (7 years ago)

    It's good to hear from you here, Ruth.

    I agree that guilt can be cancerous the way it invades your mind and leaves you helpless against self abuse.

    I also agree that helping can be a way of assuaging guilt. It's enshrined in our legal system, after all. For example, community work for first time and minor offenders.

    And on that final point, I too think there are many times when we don't want someone to do something for us when we are distressed. We simply want/need them to be there and available, to listen.

    Thanks, Ruth.

    Reply
  67. Elisabeth
    August 20, 2010 at 6:17 am (7 years ago)

    You put it beautifully Phoenix: 'the guilt that I'm not doing enough still tries to break through the front door of my home sometimes, jaws snapping.'

    I'm glad to hear you ave a grip on it most of the time, those martyr tendencies are dangerous.

    My husband jokes at meal times that 'mothers like gristle'. He could replace that with women like gristle, but I don't think it is exclusive to mothers and women.

    I think there is the odd man who also struggles with the need to work through his guilt. Look at all these priests.

    Thanks, Phoenix.

    Reply
  68. Elisabeth
    August 20, 2010 at 6:29 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks for coming back again, Brent with your qualifications. I'm inclined to agree with you. I've never been comfortable with the notion of some people as evil, though I think of Hanhah Arendt's ideas about the 'banality of evil' and I think there maybe some truth in that notion.

    So it's not that people per se who are evil, it's the mindlessness that poverty, neglect, trauma, abuse etc can instill in them that makes certain vulnerable people unable to reflect.

    It's also possible, as I understand it, that someone with serious psychopathic tendencies lacks the capacity for guilt.

    So perhaps we should not rule guilt out altogether.

    There may be times when we actually need to feel some guilt, but always in moderation, always to be considered and not to be used by ourselves or others to beat us up for our entire lives.

    For this reason I have trouble with the notion of 'original sin', which dooms us from the start even before we've had a chance to put a foot wrong.

    A book comes to mind in this context, Kate Grenville's Dark Places or Albion's Story as it's known in America. It details in the finest prose the internal world of a troubled man who on the surface might appear sane, but who is not.

    Kate Grenville amazingly manages to get inside the mind of such an imagined man. It's a fantastic, though chilling, story and well worth reading.

    Reply
  69. Elisabeth
    August 20, 2010 at 6:39 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks, Christina. It's lovely to hear from you here. I'm glad you liked the post.

    I think I can sometimes sit by and be there for people but the impulse to 'help' in more concrete ways is still there, too.

    I've found people's responses here fascinating.

    Clearly many of us struggle with the bogey man of guilt. Clearly many of us also struggle to moderate our impulse to do good and help, with the opposing need to put ourselves first and take care of ourselves.

    In the end, I suspect, it's all a matter of balance.

    Reply
  70. little hat
    August 20, 2010 at 1:36 pm (7 years ago)

    Very honest and wise elizabeth. You must be Catholic. and a female one to boot. I'm married to one – not a social worker but a Counsellor. she's very good at it but ometimes becomes to much to too many.
    There's a lot to be said for self care, even a little selfishness.

    PS If there is a God please spare us from Tony Abbott. I agreed with your thoughts re democracy but I can't be as generous as you towards people who only appear intent on gaining power.

    And yes it has ben a strangly transfixing political campaign.

    Reply
  71. Reader Wil
    August 20, 2010 at 2:28 pm (7 years ago)

    Helping people and being kind is quite normal and it's pleasant. If somebody keeps the door open for me I am always grateful and I do the same if necessary. I don't feel this as boring.
    I don't feel quilty either, for sins I don't even know I committed them. I am probably not normal! LOL.

    Reply
  72. KleinsteMotte
    August 20, 2010 at 6:25 pm (7 years ago)

    Your grandmother returned to Holland? I guess the idea of being watched and feeling guilty is one way to keep masses under some sort of control. We have put security cameras everywhere because God isn't able to convince as many followers??

    Reply
  73. Elisabeth
    August 21, 2010 at 5:45 am (7 years ago)

    Thanks, Little hat, your wife sounds like a woman after my own heart.

    As for tonight's election, I can only hope that sanity prevails and we wind up with a new female PM and much more of a green influence in the world.

    Reply
  74. Elisabeth
    August 21, 2010 at 5:49 am (7 years ago)

    Well Reader, it's clear to me that you are generous and without sin. Without too much guilt as well by the sound of things. You are blessed – in a non-religious sense – and your blog suggests as much.

    Thanks, Reader

    Reply
  75. Elisabeth
    August 21, 2010 at 5:52 am (7 years ago)

    My grandmother came to Australia for a year in the early 1950s to be near her daughter and family, but she came only for a holiday, Kleinstemotte.

    I think you might be right about all those security cameras everywhere. A sign of anxiety, paranoia and insecurity, perhaps. It's such a pity.

    Reply

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