So many of us are looking for ways to help this suffering world–happily and safely. For most, the challenge seems to be how to help in ways they feel meaningful. On the other hand, there are also many, many activists, social workers, and others who have found ways to help, but are missing out on the happily and safely part. So, how do we help the world while still having a good life for ourselves?
Recently a reader, who called herself “Cat,” wrote me this:
I know this seems petty when compared to the many horrible problems our world is facing, but the issue that really pulls at my heartstrings is cat rescue. I live in a very poor neighborhood, and there is an endless stream of hungry, homeless and otherwise desperate cats right outside my back door.
I have fed, fixed and rescued as many as I could, but honestly, I’m exhausted, I’m broke from vet bills, I’ve been neglecting my business for years now, my income has fallen below poverty level, my savings is drained, and I’m emotionally spent.
I know I cannot continue to pour from an empty glass, but how can I not try to help the hungry ones in front of me? How can I not get angry when no one else seems to notice them?
This is a conundrum I have faced so many times myself. How do I turn down the school that is asking me to do a pro bono speech. How can I turn away from the coaching client who can’t afford to pay me?
Taken to the extreme, how can I even dance or eat a nice meal or go on a date, when the whole world is suffering? Climate change is coming fast. Black citizens are getting shot by police. Fracking infrastructure is getting laid down everywhere. Who cares about my taking care of myself?
The thing is, if I don’t take care of myself, where will I get the energy and sustenance to keep helping? How will I not turn bitter? How will I not tune out?
Here was the response I wrote to our friend “Cat” who helps the cats. There are thoughts in there for all helpers and activists:
Thanks for your note and thank you for saving as many cats as you have. That is wonderful. There is a great compassion inside you that points itself at the sad cats outside your door. I believe that compassion is at the root of you and all of us, if we can just let it out.
Sometimes, though, as you so wonderfully put it, we become attached to our efforts to help. We take a certain kind of action because of our compassionate impulse, but then some other unfulfilled part of us attaches to that action and wants to do it over and over in the hopes that it will fix or heal some part of ourselves. This is often unconscious.
We think of materialism only as being to attached to getting and having more stuff and money in the hope that it will change the way we feel on the inside. But we can also be materialistic about other things–including our spirituality or our attempts to help or our activism. Instead of attaching to stuff and money, we become attached to those other channels of action–or to our idea of the results of those actions–in the hope that changing things outside ourselves will change something on the inside.
A good sign that this kind of attachment has occurred is when you are severely harming yourself or others in order to be compassionate. That is ironic, isn’t it? Harming to be compassionate? (By the way, this is not withstanding the fact that sometimes compassion has to be fierce.)
Personally, I have done a lot of spiritual and psychological work to deal with the stories I have about climate change and other world crises. I work hard to help them and–increasingly–to help other people who want to help with them. But I also understand that the motor will stop running if it is not maintained. I have to take care of myself. The research shows that happy people help more, so making yourself unhappy by helping can undermine the helping.
This is not to say that self-sacrifice is always wrong for us. In our society, we already do a lot of self-sacrificing. We tend, though, to self-sacrifice for things we don’t actually value, however. We self-sacrifice for a job we don’t believe in or a life path we didn’t actually choose for ourselves.
But when it comes to our compassionate action, we have to respect that we may have limits to our self-sacrifice–partly for our own happiness but also because, if we don’t, we end may end up being less helpful than we hoped. For some people, it is appropriate to be very self-sacrificing. For others, less so.
Each of us has our own circumstances and situation and so have our own limits, both psychological and practical. It is important to respect and recognize our own limits or to ask ourselves what is stopping ourselves from recognizing them, like our attachments and materialism.
Which brings me back to your wonderful compassion. It is so great that you have found something you want to help. But it is probably time you take care of yourself and find some balance. We have to learn to live with suffering in the world–which doesn’t, of course, mean ignore it.
I don’t know you, so this advice may not be appropriate for you, but I hope it will help someone:
Root out the psychological needs you are trying to fill by attaching to your helping. Find the materialism in your compassion. Find a way to fill those needs more directly, probably not through your helping actions. You may need help with this. Therapy? Peer-counseling? Joining a good spiritual community and adopting a practice? You probably know the best route.
This will not make you have less love and compassion. On the contrary. It will liberate it. Being less attached to your old habits, you may even find a better way to help the cats. But probably more importantly, you will be able to further release your love so that extends to all beings–not just the cats–and most especially to yourself.
I hope that helps.
Please let me know in the comments if any of this applies to your version of the cats–whatever you help with in the world. I’d love to hear how you take care of yourself while being of service.
By the way, my book How to Be Alive: A Guide To The Kind of Happiness That Helps The World is entirely about the topic of this post–the quest for a happy life that also helps the world (and vice versa). Get a free chapter from the book here and order it here.
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