Vacuous help, aka “support”

At some point we’ve likely all decried the emptiness of well intended phrases meant to comfort someone when they are experiencing a difficult time. “I’ll be prayin’ for ya”, someone says. And we thank them dutifully.

I don’t wish to rehash that dynamic. Rather, because of something that happened this past week I had some new thoughts about empathy that reveal how insidious a pastime empathy really is.

Recall a couple of months ago a colleague of mine died of a rare illness, from stricken to dead in five weeks. And I was knocked off my feet. During the three weeks of hospice I liaised between the family and my employer and did some other practical things that I thought were helpful to the wife of my colleague. An understandable couple of months passed before receiving her thank you note this week. It humbled and blessed me and magnified my own sense of being undeserving.

Over the next couple of days I got to re-experience the grief at full strength.

This nagged at me. I prayed about it… a lot. I tend to feel inadequate and ill equipped in crisis like that one.

I was reminded, providentially, of another time some fifteen or twenty years ago when the death of the mother of some kids that attended the little Christian school my kids attended crashed into our lives. There was some practical thing I could do but was not sure if it would be helpful. But I offered the dad that I would pick up his dirty laundry weekly and clean it all in the dry cleaner we owned, then return it to his home. I did so for several months until the man convinced me it was OK to stop.

Some years passed and we ran into that man and his boys at a church we visited. We had one of my wife’s sisters with us.  The man came across the room and hugged me aggressively, not some little should thing or a quick slap on the back hug, but a squeezing rocking affair. I was then left as flummoxed as I was this week with the note. More, I will not forget that my sister in law remarked something about how I “helped people”.

Believe me folks. I am not your neighborhood altruist. Not even close.

I occurred to me when I reread the note’s reference to the “hands and feet of Jesus”, not that I was being that and good on me, rather what occurred to me was that an instance of deploying hands and feet is worth more than the sum of global empathy throughout all history and until the end of time.

Empathy has a reward feedback loop for those addicted to it. It also has hand and feet avoidance mechanisms, including its own subtle vocabulary. The above example of telling someone they will be prayed for, the expression “I’m there for you” and its expanded more honest version, “I’m there for you if you want to talk” .

Nothing excites the empathy addict more than being the conversational support for someone else. The empathy addict, during a dry spell, will even generate things for which she needs support.

The empathy addict that is nearing an addiction crisis will even start to let empathy affect other parts of their lives. They will volunteer as a helper then be unable to do (hands and feet) the work as needed, begging off due to some empathy generating reference to an issue someone in the family or circle of friends is having. After all, the addict is the essential support structure for that suffering person and that takes priority over hands and feet stuff like volunteering.

This juxtaposition of empathy wallowing and actually doing physical things to help is not meant to suggest that being a listener is not a hands a feet action. It is meant to point out the exploitation of the fact that listening is doing in order to make listening a source for empathogasms.

Finally, this has nothing whatsoever to do with me and the small references to self in the examples. I’m not being falsely modest. I really am not an altruist. It blesses me that twice in 15 years I stood out as such, but doing so means I have to scale the cliffs of my nature which is just not so inclined.

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2 thoughts on “Vacuous help, aka “support”

  1. I’m someone who, outside of the internet, offers almost exclusively helpful advice and actual help. For example, when a coworker’s friend died, “I know it’s hard right now, but you need to be with people who understand where you are and look after each other, not stay in work. I can cover your jobs for this afternoon. If you want me to get the shopping for you guys I can get it, but just get yourself home and work through this.” And, in my experience, most people don’t actually appreciate it. They’d rather have a pat on the back and someone say “I will pray for you” than have someone take over their work so they can take time off. They’d rather be told how sorry someone is than have the same person do them a favour. They’ll ACCEPT real, physical help, but it’s forgotten far faster than empty support.

    I still don’t really know how to offer empty support, but I’m sure that if I did, it would be more appreciated than the actual help I offer. Then again, in terms of maintaining social dynamics, it’s better than nothing at all, isn’t it?

  2. Great, Empath. How many times have I(we) listened to a parade of women gushing about some real or imagined “disaster” during gossip hour (prayer request time) where we are supposed to ask God to be our lackey and do something for someone that the prayer requester can’t be bothered to pitch in to help on? Ex. “Betty Bertha is dealing with (fill in the blank with several probably mundane items) and needs prayer.” B.B, like everyone, would probably be benefited by prayer but a 5 minute phone call might really go a long way too. The requester likely won’t bestir themselves to do much of anything because that person is in reality part of the unlovable caste and helping them in person doesn’t produce much of a warm fuzzy. Therefor let God do it. I will not pray for God to do something I can do. Maybe that’s not the right attitude but I think it’s respectful.

    Empathy and a whole host of other self serving emotions women use to give them an endorphin rush or shore up their social veto power remind me of the 23 kinds of expensive, gourmet tea and drinks put out at early morning meetings that do nothing to address the fact that I haven’t had breakfast and what I really need is some genuine hearty calories. The dazzling array of bright, colorful foil envelopes is intended to distract from the real issue which is “we’re requiring you to forgo something of substance and, instead of compensating you, we chose the much cheaper route of spending a couple bucks on glittering distractions. You’ll still go away hungry but hopefully won’t place the blame on us where it belongs.”

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