Want to hear something really disturbing? I was raised to be a saviour. Not The Saviour. Just a saviour- and that’s bad enough. I am realizing this on a deeper level because the Grandmothers in my dreams, the still small voice during my daily meditations, and the conversations I have with a more centred aspect of self on the pages of my journal keep offering me the same mantra: “You cannot save them Oriah.”
This makes me pause, makes me wonder who I am trying to “save.” I don’t have to look too far. As many of you know my father was recently hospitalized with advanced Alzheimer’s. He’s having a very difficult time as his confusion and frustration deepen, at times becoming aggressive and violent with caregivers (he has never been either in his life before.) He is at the cruellest stage of this disease- unable to function independently or communicate clearly but intermittently aware of all he has lost and plagued with obsessive-compulsive thoughts, transitory amnesia and occasional hallucinations. My mother, dealing with her own mental confusion, is understandably distraught and exhausted as we work with health-care providers to find the right setting, medications and care that will ease my father’s suffering.
And the Grandmothers tell me, “You cannot save them, Oriah.”
I know they do not mean that I should not, to the best of my ability, assist in the process of arranging the best care possible, and offer my support and love in any way I can. They do mean that no matter what I do, I cannot spare them the challenges and pain of old age and disease.
I know this, and I know that the Grandmothers know I know this. So, I wonder what else they are pointing to by repeating this phrase. It’s not the first time I have considered the source and consequences of a semi-conscious and mistaken belief in my own responsibility to “save” others. But here it is again. What part of me still believes I can and should “save” others? When I ask the question I get that funny sinking feeling you get when you know you are about to visit- again- one of core complexes in your psyche. And as I sit with this I can see how I was trained from an early age to believe that it was simply my “job” to save others.
Every child wants their parents to be happy. In fact, as children, our happiness is closely linked with that of our parents’. Without knowing anything about cultural norms for women in the ‘50’s I could see that my mother was not happy in the role of housewife and mother, no matter how much she espoused the value of this role. So, in an attempt to save my mother from her unhappiness, I sought to be “good,” to keep all the rules perfectly (and there were hundreds about behaviour, appearance, house-keeping etc.) The message was clear: women were responsible for the happiness of their families and this happiness was bought by sacrificing any of their own needs, wants or desires that were not in alignment with what they or their husbands or the broader culture said were requirements to fulfill this role. This dove-tailed nicely with my Sunday school lessons to be like Jesus- someone who’d sacrificed his life for others. Martyrdom was the ideal.
If it seems I am over-simplifying, I would argue that the simplicity and consistency of the message was what made it so powerful. My childhood fantasies were of being called upon to give my life for others- literally- and finding the heroic strength to rise to the occasion.
There were of course aspects of my personality and family history that reinforced my hope that I could fulfill my appointed task. I went to university for social work although I wanted to study English literature and creative writing, because doing good (saving others) was more important that following my own interests and desires. At eighteen it simply never occurred to me that following my own interests might develop skills that could offer something of value to the world- sacrifice was an assumed requirement. I married men (one at a time :-) who were not living up to their potential, at least in part because I hoped my support (emotional, financial, therapeutic, creative etc.) would help them heal old wounds so they could offer their gifts to the world.
It’s not that I haven’t made any progress in dismantling this saviour complex. Over the years I’ve become a better friend and counsellor in my personal and professional life because I have been able to see that we can only support and be companions to each other. When asked I can bring my own experience and insights to the other, I can provide a container for and hold the other in caring while they meet the challenges in their own life. But I cannot see what another needs to do let alone provide them with the inner means to do it.
This is how it goes in a human life: core issues in the psyche resurface again and again, and each time we have a chance to deepen the healing beneath an erroneous belief, to let go a little more into the truth of our own smallness and the largeness of the love that holds and is within us. I cannot save another from their own challenges, struggles and suffering because I do not have this power because. . . . I am a human being. . . . limited in my wisdom and perspective and power. Realizing this at a deeper level offers more relief than disappointment.
But there is something more here: maybe we cannot do this for each other because finding and following our own way, as inter-connected and inter-dependent as we are, is what we are here to do, is how we learn and unfold to become all that we are. How we do this is a choice that is given to each of us. Maybe, our inability to “save” each other is not a bug, but a feature! Although we can support and sometimes even truly help each other, it is not our place to rob another of their own choices and struggles when dealing with the challenges life brings.
One of the things we really can do for each other and for ourselves, is to deepen our self-knowledge, to sort through the many mixed and semi-conscious motivations for our actions. To the degree we are unconscious, to the degree I want to “save” another to fulfill the role I took up in an unconscious and misguided bid to buy my mother’s happiness and earn my right to be, I am likely to do good badly and cause more suffering. This is not about abandoning another when we have something to offer- presence, information, encouragement, resources- that really can help. It’s about not abandoning ourselves as we offer what we are able, grounded in an awareness of the limitations of being human and the infinite power of love to help even when nothing more can be done.