My question is, as a follower of God, am I a hypocrite for not wanting to help someone in need? I’ve recently become acquainted with a woman who has severe emotional problems related to anxiety and trauma. She refuses to get professional help but simultaneously expects other people to take care of her many needs.
The lady she is staying with has a weekly prayer meeting at her home on Sundays, and she is afraid to be in the house during that time because of her fear of crowds and people. Last Sunday I took her with me to a part-time job, but this week I really felt I needed my Sunday free as it is my only day off. The homeowner told me she is putting the woman up in a hotel since I’m not available to take her.
How much help is too much? Having been treated for anxiety myself, I understand that someone can be extremely fearful of everyday circumstances, but if she can’t ride the bus to a coffee shop for a few hours or take a walk in the park while the prayer meeting is going on, how much can another person do for her? Should I be expected to give up my one day off every week to babysit a grown woman, and should my friend be expected to use her own money to put her in a hotel?
I’m torn between feeling anger and judgment toward this lady as well as feeling like a hypocrite both because I know what it is like to suffer from anxiety and because people also opened their homes up to me through house sitting jobs when I was first new in town. I can’t help thinking that but for the grace of God, I could be in her shoes, so I feel incredibly guilty for thinking she needs to “woman up” and take care of herself.
Feeling hypocritical and very un-Christlike,
We shortened your letter because of space restrictions, but you gave a number of examples of how difficult this woman is and how no matter what you or others do for her it is never enough. The problem you are facing is one that, we believe, most good people run into during their lives. As good, God-fearing people, how can we turn away from those in need?
Truly, only you can answer that question for yourself, perhaps with guidance from a religious leader or wise mentor, but we can make a few comments.
Have you ever worked with pie or pizza dough? You need to roll it or stretch it into shape, but if you yank too hard, you will make holes rather than produce a smooth, satiny surface. Gently tugging at different areas gives the desired result; forcing the dough doesn’t work.
People are similar to dough. We want to enlarge ourselves and become bigger. As individuals, we each have different areas on which we must focus. Some of us need to become calmer, some more cheerful and others more generous. Some of us need to stiffen our spines more while others should focus on being more diligent. However, if we try to force growth and push ourselves too quickly, the most common result is tearing a hole in ourselves rather than moving forward.
This verse sheds a little light on your predicament.
You shall not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the members of your people;
you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Does loving your neighbor as yourself mean buying a sweater for her whenever you buy one for yourself? No, of course not. Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that it means that you should do for your neighbor exactly what is reasonable to expect from others if you were in the same situation. No less and no more.
You sound like a warm and empathetic person. Only you can decide where your boundaries must be. Like the proverbial case of sinking a lifeboat by taking on one too many survivors of a shipwreck, if you overload yourself you will end up helping fewer people with less generosity and kindness. It is good that you appreciate how people helped you when you were in need, but that should help you tug gently at your character development, not lay a ton of guilt on you.
We often hear or read stories of amazing people with depths of giving we can’t even imagine. Our job isn’t to become them. It is to carefully become more of us. Each of us has different talents and abilities that we can use to help others. We should push beyond our comfort zone, in effect setting a new and expanded comfort zone, but we shouldn’t lose ourselves in the process.
Another thing that must be considered is at what point support turns into a crippling crutch. You can’t force this woman to get professional help, but there is the possibility that excessive catering to her whims may help convince her that it isn’t necessary. At that point, you are enabling her dependency and not really helping. You are correct that your feelings that she should “woman up” and take care of herself aren’t good ones. They stem from your resentment rather than a place of caring for her. Nonetheless, caring for her may well lead you to decide where to draw the line for her sake as well as for yours.
As to your friend paying for a hotel, she is making a generous gesture. Like you, she must choose for herself what she can and cannot do. You need to be honest with your friend as to whether you plan to give up, shall we say, seven out of eight Sundays to be with this troubled lady or whether it is more likely that you will give one Sunday every other month. Then your friend must make her own decision as to what she can and cannot do.
So, dear Cindy, since we don’t know you we can’t advise you what to do. But we encourage you to be honest with yourself as you veer away from selfishness but also away from martyrdom.
Blessings in whatever path you take,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin