Untangling my “Help” Personality

I got the e-newsletter from MEC today (http://www.mec.ca/Main/home.jsp?bmLocale=en&bmUID=1236957306800).

Inside was a sustainability news blip about some fabric they had manufactured to create long underwear. The fabric had a flaw in it, which made it sub-standard for their clothing rack, even though the fabric still did the job it was supposed to do, which was keep people warm. 

Instead of throwing it out, they used it to create long underwear for children, and donated it to children who live in extreme cold areas. Go MEC!

I have submitted the quote from my email, as I was unable to find the same story on the website.

3700 Ways to Beat the Cold
When we were testing the fabric for our new line of long underwear we found that it pilled, and we weren’t happy with that. But, the fabric still does what it’s supposed to – keep you warm – and we had stacks of it. So, combining our zero waste philosophy with our desire to get kids outdoors, we made 3700 pairs of kid-sized long underwear. But the real hero here is Jim Boyd, a leader in the Yukon’s outdoor education community. Through his connections with northern school groups we were able to pair our long johns with kids who experience temperatures that reach -50 degrees Celsius. Thank you Jim.

This is one of the many reasons why I shop at MEC. I love this store! Anywho, this blog isn’t meant to be a plugf or MEC…. I digress.

As I was perusing the blog on the website, I came across this story:

http://blog.mec.ca/2009/02/it-was-heart-breaking-i-was-crossing-a-pedestrian-overpass-in-the-heart-of-delhi-when-i-stumbled-on-an-18-month-girl-sitting.html

It got me thinking as I work, my technical diddley humming on autopilot around this idea.

I once asked a question of a friend who was a soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces. I asked him how he managed to go about his day-to-day, while deployed, when scenes like the one described above were all around him. How did he not feel overwhelmed at the sorrow, the suffering, and not want to help every single person he saw? Did he cry sometimes, seeing it all around him? Was it hard to take?

The answer turned into a very interesting and late-night conversation, that drilled down into his emotions, and more personal issues.  but, I remembered it reading this story today, and my own realization afterwards.

He said that you do one of two things. You turn your brain off from registering it, and you simply ignore it. Or, you become consumed with the guilt that you cannot help these people, or at least not all of them, in a personal way, and thus, burn yourself out feeling miserable. Some soldiers justify their presence in the area, keeping the peace, as helping them in an indirect way, thus absolving them of guilt for not giving the outstretched hand something. Others take a harder stance that they are there simply to do their duty, and that falls outside their duty.

The situation also made me wonder about the journalist photographers who go into war-torn nations, or into areas of devastation to take pictures for their periodicals. Not being in that situation myself, I can’t imagine what it would be like to view the sorrow and poverty through a lens, capturing those powerful scenes with a click of their finger. Does it affect them? Do they cry? How do they handle going in with impartiality to get those photos, and deal with the memories they create of looking human suffering in the face?

I remember having a respect for my friend after our talk, understanding just how hard being there, and having to rationalize in one of those ways must be, even with special training from the Armed Forces on dealing with it. I seriously gave thought to the concept, after that, of whether or not I would be able to a) Be in that situation and b) Turn away from it without wanting to help directly.

It is hard to imagine what you would do in the situation, having never been in it. I am a lucky woman to be living where I do, with the abundance I have. My son is lucky to be able to grow up knowing that abundance. We are lucky to live in a peaceful nation that provides us what we need to live well. We are blessed.

But, imagine I do, because, as my personality dictates, I am a “helper”, and a “giver”, according to personality profiles I have taken. I can’t help but think of ways I could make it all better, to fix it, to make people happy.  I have been told again and again that I am overly empathetic, and need to think about myself more often. My husband has said I don’t keep enough for me when I am in “give” mode, and I run from confrontation so that people won’t be unhappy with me.  I cry at adopt-a-dog commercials, or pictures on the news of sadness and suffering.

All summed up, when people around me are sad, even if virtually on a screen, I feel sad. This is perhaps why I get so emotionally attached to my fictional characters when I write… ok, digressing again… Where was I…

I know that if I was in that situation, with the small naked girl, her hand outstretched, I would be unable to turn away. I know that looking directly at that girl would break my resolve like a twig under a work boot. I would crumble, and do whatever I could to help that child. But… If I was in the situation to be impartial, like a photographer, as military personell, or on business… would I be able to turn away based on the rules of my presence, and what I came to do originally?

That question is answered with a resounding no. And from that I know I could never do one of those jobs. I just wouldn’t be able to cope well with turning away and not helping, if that was required of me to do. It would consume me, and I would end up not doing what I originally came to do.

I know it sounds entirely heroic of me to toot my horn and say all these things, that I would help, help, help…  Its isn’t really.  I have learned to understand myself, and how I would react, and now I try to temper and restrain because of it. I am the child who saved mice from the cats, who waded through a swamp in good riding clothes to rescue a baby deer from a dog, who ran straight at an overturned car on the highway to help, blanket and first aid kit in hand, who gave my last ten dollars away to someone I thought needed it, when I myself couldn’t afford to eat.

I react without thinking to things such as this, I have that experience under my belt, and sometimes, it is to my detriment.

I have not learned how to channel my need to ensure others are happy before myself properly yet, perhaps. Hence I would find going to an orphanage in Africa, or a third-world country where poverty is rampant, to be completely draining on my emotions. I would not be able to cope, or would get bogged down trying to do as much as I could. I would feel guilty for every naked little girl I didn’t help, instead of excited about the one  I did help.

Perhaps understanding my “help” personality better will make it easier for me to figure out where I can give without having it take over and fell my emotions and personality. It can become fulfilling instead of overwhelming.

I suppose this story on the MEC site brought thoughts to the surface that have been in my concious thought more in the past few months,. They’ve been circulating, prodding the notion that I must be a better example for my son, and the nagging feeling that I should be giving back more.  How? When? What charity? None of it seems to be singled out yet, its just a big blob of jumbled thoughts racing about in my head.

But giving it some strong, methodical thought, and realizing that I do indeed know what my “help” personality is, may be the right path to untangling it.

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