When I was growing up in Sudan, many people around me did not have their own personal comb, their own bed or their own towel. This was not because they were poor, but because they did not have a sense of individuality or exclusive ownership. Sharing things was their way of life. They felt so much part of their family, even the extended family that there was no sense of us versus me. And this attitude applied not only to material possessions but to effort and time. Time for oneself, ‘my’ space, ‘my’ projects were alien concepts. As much as I loved reading as a child, I was aware that my self-absorption was often considered aloof, insular and elitist. In such a society, helping others was not even considered help. It was what one did, part of normality, the nature of life. But the world changes and so do people. We are not like that anymore. Schools foster individuality and children are encouraged to know their favourite colour and their favourite cereals. Individual ownership of all things is encouraged and so we grow to nurture our own space and our own ways. Helping others becomes an effort, we are going out of our way; it is taking away something from us and we can come to resent it.
When we help others or say yes to their requests, we are fighting our selfishness and laziness. This is a good fight, and the rewards are plenty. It is satisfying to benefit someone else, to alleviate their distress, to fulfil their needs. Their happiness becomes our happiness. We feel good about ourselves. By helping others, we come to know that we are of use, that we are important. We have agency which we have used for the benefit of someone else. It is a duty to serve others, especially if they are our parents, our spouses, poorer or more helpless members of our community. Immigrant communities cannot thrive and would not have achieved their current success without the support and generosity of their more able, better educated, and more privileged members. Helping each other is a means of our survival.
But there is a downside to this and one which you have identified. In helping others, we can neglect ourselves. In lending a hand to strangers, we can fall short in our responsibilities to ourselves and our own immediate family. Your fear of giving offence and your guilt are warning signs. It is time to draw the line, to back away. If you don’t, the consequences will be even more problematic. Resentment, irritability with requests, a sense of grandiosity, a mistaken belief that you are irreplaceable or that if you do not help, no one else can. You might also be unwittingly fostering dependence and laziness, rather than encouraging people to help themselves and pointing them towards greater empowerment. Even more dangerous would be a growing hostility against those you have helped. In the Qur’an, Allah Almighty tells us to spend on the poor, to give and to help but there is also a stark warning that we must not follow our good deeds with harm, patronizing or rubbing the help in their faces.
Your letter reminded me of an iftar at the mosque. One of the ladies who was serving the meal was fatigued and overwhelmed. When asked for an extra piece of cutlery, she lashed out and started to shout about how she is doing her best etc. Her outburst was full of resentment, a sense of injustice that she had already given far too much and should not be expected to do more. Her raised voice shattered the peace of the happy, special moments of breaking the fast. It left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Better if she had not been helping at all. Better if she had sat in a corner, nursing her headache and eating her dates. We could have well managed without her; there was no need for a scene.
When it comes to your needs versus the needs of others balance is important. Instead of being afraid that you won’t be asked to help in the future, it is wiser to fear the anger that can grow in you if you continue to unfairly neglect yourself. Instead of hesitating to give a polite, controlled ‘no’ to a request, it is wiser to guard against the more serious offence of grudgingly giving help under a cloud of a festering resentment.
Think of your capacity to help others as a muscle. If you strain it, it will ache and put you out of action. If you don’t use it at all, it will weaken. Keep it fit and healthy, strengthen it so that it can do more, train is so that it can function more efficiently. And remember that our egos are trying to trip us all the time.
with love, Leila