Now I'd like to play a couple rounds of Devil's Advocate.
Let's put it on the table. Is there such thing as too much giving? After all, some of us are already helping people. All. The. Time.
We volunteer at the retirement home, we bake for the neighbors. Perhaps we run a little NPO on the side that distributes funds and clothing, or join every other community hesed committee, or run off to a wedding hall in the middle of the night to pick up and distribute the leftover food.
Or maybe we do some or all of the above, PLUS we've found our life's calling in one of those pointedly-named Helping Professions --as a social worker, therapist, nurse or charity office manager. What could be better? We are assured an opportunity to help others, every day, and often in the most moving and meaningful ways. We take care of others' bodies and souls. We sooth mental anguish and relieve financial burdens, advocate for the disenfranchised and restore human dignity. We do all of this without pitying or patronizing.
So is there such thing as helping too much? We love our life's work because it is life-giving, meaningful, significant. We believe our professional role is right and yes, a kind of moral obligation. But we often resent the conditions: Low pay, little recognition, case overload, stressful work environment.
I'm thinking about yet another phenomenon. How do you do it, how can you work here, with such sick kids? someone will query in admiration. Kol haKavod (Bravo!), that's amazing! They don't get it. I can do this work because love this work, and when I'm doing it, my life feels meaningful and significant.
The problem comes later, when I get home. Sometimes it hits me, how sick those kids really are, and I am exhausted. Weighing me down are all the patients I didn't have time to work with. The parents I didn't get back to. That uncomfortable exchange with a short-tempered staff member. The feeling of being constantly on call -- encouraging, empathic, organized and authoritative -- but not too authoritative. These things can all but wash out the day's many successes.
Worse, I often find myself unable to regroup and focus by the time I've finished my commute home. My own kids need me. They need someone to give them lunch and watch their gymnastics practice and blows their noses and help with their math homework. They don't feel my own need to go to the bathroom and then sit down for five minutes, alone, over a hot drink. Whatever went on in my day until now is completely irrelevant. They expect focused, energetic Mommy, ready to go and full speed ahead.
The work itself is not the problem, it's maintaining my strength to give and give, all morning and afternoon, and then give again into the evening. It's keeping up the required enthusiasm at home to do all the day-to-day tasks, with the patience my kids deserve from me.
Sometimes I fantasize leaving for a well-compensated, "normal" office job, or locking myself away in my studio, "arting" around all day. I imagine opening a small craft business, or private therapy work with a limited number of clients. But getting down to it, I know I would only do such a thing if I were to reach the conclusion that the price had gotten too high, that I could no longer keep up both ends of the giving spectrum, and that giving at work was always at the expense of giving at home.
And here's where I have to admit it. For all its difficulties, hospital work gives me a sense of status and accomplishment that, for whatever reason, I cannot always seem to muster at home. Maybe that's the fallout for some of us girls who grew up in the Seventies on Sesame Street and Free to Be... You and Me. Or maybe it's just that at work, I'm an experienced professional, a figure of authority, a source of knowledge and understanding, while at home, I'm "just" Mom.
Their only Mom. Full speed ahead.
Keep the balance,
For more on why we help one another, this is another interesting NYT piece, especially the part about the role of the sclera (whites of the eyes) in human altruistic behavior.