Helping

I ran across a quote from Anne Lamott recently, and I love her, I really do, but this one puzzled me. Here it is:

Do you mind even a little that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else’s needs and laundry and career ahead of your creative, spiritual life? Giving all your life force away, to “help” and impress. Well, your help is not helpful, and falls short.

It’s a great quote, dealing with addiction and “people-pleasing” and abandoning – or avoiding – your own creative and spiritual life in order to impress other people. I get it. I agree. We shouldn’t destroy our inner selves just so people will think we’re “nice,” and we absolutely must not throw our life force away. There have been times when I needed just such a kick in the pants.

But as I get older, I find that I must put other people’s needs ahead of my own, more often than I ever dreamed possible in my ambitious, individualistic youth. I think there are times when taking care of other people is the right path, even if it isn’t pleasant. Sometimes people need help. With all due respect to Anne Lamott (still one of my favorites), I believe that my help is helpful, that it does not fall short, and – here’s the point – that it doesn’t hamper my creative or spiritual life.

My inner, creative self and my outer, helpful self are both housed in the same body. They pay the same rent and use the same utilities. I can’t lodge one and evict the other for long. With a teenager at home, a husband who works full time, and a mother with dementia, I am in no position to stop helping other people and be “creative.” Conversely, I can’t imagine putting down all my artistic endeavors for a life of full-time “helping.” Either way, I’d be dead in six months.

I have to merge my creative pursuits and my ordinary, slog-through-the-housework-go-to-the-day-job responsibilities into one cohesive life. Each part feeds the other. I have been assuring myself for four years that my mother’s dementia is teaching me deep truths about human nature that will pay off in my acting. And I know, beyond a doubt, that my work in the theater feeds and nurtures me, making it possible to show up day after day for my mother without burning out.

I don’t know how these two parts of my life will interact in the future. I only know that they are going to have to work and play well together. No running with scissors. No cutting my “helpful” self away from my “spiritual” self. They are one self.

For example:

Mom is struggling right now, teetering on the edge of depression. She’s genuinely convinced that her gifts were stolen – everything she bought to give, and everything she received. This is the second Christmas she’s had this delusion. Last January, the only solution was to increase a medication that I didn’t want to increase. It turned out to be the right decision, but I don’t want to go down that road again. So I’m watching, and listening, and comparing notes with my sister. I don’t know how this will end.

But I do know this: she needs help. I need to help her.

To help her, I need to breathe. Detach. Stay calm. Listen to her feelings. Feel my own feelings. Invent ways to redirect her energy. Play games, hold hands, take down the Christmas ornaments. Sing. Laugh. Trust that a solution will come.

That’s what I must do in order to be helpful. That, and keep doing the dishes. Keep finding beauty in the ordinary.

And if that’s not spiritual, if that’s not creative, I don’t know what is.

White Mar. 2013 002

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