Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is Approach more Important than Act?

I have been editing my novel manuscript for the zillionth time and came across an observation by my female protagonist that applies to me. When it comes to help, I will accept from friends what I will not accept from family making me a hypocrite. I thought it might be a refreshing change to delve into one of my many flaws. I am sure rationalizations of my behavior will abound.

First, how about some examples which for the sake of simplicity, I will limit to the period I've been totally blind – about thirteen years. One summer, I was standing before a cutting board with a roasted turkey breast upon it and a sharp knife in my hand when my grandmother came into the kitchen. "Oh, Jen, let me slice that."

"No thanks, Grandma, I got it."

"It will just take me a minute."

"No, Grandma, it's fine. Besides, who do you think does this sort of thing when I'm alone in my apartment?"

"Oh, I don't know how you live by yourself. It's so amazing."

On the other hand, if one of my meat-eating friends happened to walk into the kitchen while I was hacking at a turkey breast, I might actually say, "Hey, you do this. I'm going to make a mess of it."

Now let us move to the realm of navigation. When I first lost my sight, my family was rather insistent that I travel sighted guide. I was equally insistent I go it alone. Drove my family nuts. My friends were much more flexible about this. In fact, to this day friends from that period are the only people able to guide me by words alone without me harming myself.

After a time, I went sighted guide with my friends when it was practical and my choice. Nobody ever insisted, although sometimes they explained the current challenge so I could make an informed choice. It has not been until recently that I have willingly and without resentment taken the elbow of a member of my family.

My sisters are very fashion-conscious and have taken it upon themselves to advise me about what I wear. I have been known to ask for such input, but mostly it is unsolicited. Since we have very different goals – I want it to feel good on me and they want it to look good on me – there is often conflict. The phrase, "But, Jen, we can see what looks good and you can't," has been uttered countless times. Frustration is felt by everyone involved. In the past two years, one has mostly given up and the other has taken a new approach which probably involves a lot of eye rolling, but see no eye rolls know no eye rolls.

On the other hand, I ask my friends how things look all the time. In fact, last summer we went through my entire closet and if the two advising people said "get rid of it," I chose to heed the advice. I don't think I have actually bought a piece of clothing that feels uncomfortable to wear, but on friend's advice I have bought out of my style comfort zone multiple times.

So, the question at hand is this: If the act is the same, does the helper's approach to it truly matter? Since I am on the receiving end of the act packaged with the approach, I cannot be completely objective. There is only one category of situation where I could care less about how aid is given. Last summer, I started across a street only to be grabbed by a man and pulled back. It was inelegant and without warning, but saved me from becoming road pizza. I will forego critiquing approach if it keeps me safe.

Now watch as the justification of my hypocrisy unfolds. Usually, approach matters to me for like most I prefer being treated respectfully. Among other things, this includes not being pushed into letting someone do what I am already doing, choices not being forced upon me, and my opinion not being dismissed as less worthy of consideration. I don't think the fact that I need the aid means I must take the help however it is given. Perhaps family dynamics play a role in making me feel less comfortable with their approach. Possibly I am ungrateful. Certainly I am defying the expression "beggars can't be choosers." Whatever the case, unlike Machiavelli, I do not think the ends justifies the means, unless it is a situation of avoiding bodily harm. Then "save me" always supersedes "respect me."

I believe this makes me a hypocrite. After all, my family is simply trying to help and what I see as lacking in respect is not meant that way. Shouldn't I take needed help and put my pride and ego aside? Don't their good intentions count for anything? Shouldn't I appreciate more and judge less?

The reality is that I can live with the hypocrisy far better than I can live with approaches that don't feel respectful. At its route, this is my choice and I own it though not exactly pridefully. If I could wave a magic wand and always be helped in ways that I like, my hypocrisy would vanish. Then again, if I had that magic wand I'd just wave it and the thing needing help would be accomplished in a puff of smoke.


omniwombat said...

Always remember of course, that the very act of examining ones self for hypocrisy and analyzing it when found puts one on superior moral footing.

I would not be bothered by small, properly examined double standards put in place by uncontrollable factors.

I think in the case of "helpful" family members, constant patience, and constant diplomatic reminders of how you are self-sufficient, and of course much love, will hopefully get the point across. I can only imagine the previous frustrations on both sides that you allude to.

On that same note, is there a particular message that you are trying to project to them that you feel your family doesn't "get"? "I'm self sufficient."? "Don't pity me."? Something else?

Mike Croghan said...

I think this is a nuanced issue, so I'll take the liberty of picking apart the questions (and implied questions) in your penultimate paragraph and addressing each one separately, with my own half-baked and half-assed opinions.

1) I believe this makes me a hypocrite.

I disagree, for reasons mentioned by omniwombat. You are, instead, extremely diligent in self-examination and self-criticism. You may arrive at conclusions that seem like double standards, but you do not arrive there through lack of self-examination.

2) After all, my family is simply trying to help and what I see as lacking in respect is not meant that way.

You're correct. There's a gap here between the giver's view of the act and the receiver's view. This is exceedingly common. Usually (as in this case), both perspectives have validity from the point of view of an average, relatively neutral third party. In other words, neither interpretation is "right" or "wrong".

3) Shouldn't I take needed help and put my pride and ego aside?

There's absolutely no reason why you should be obligated to do so. To perceive that kind of obligation would be to assign the giver's interpretation of the act absolute privilege over the receiver's interpretation. But both are valid.

4) Don't their good intentions count for anything?

Of course they do! And you're aware of their good intentions, and (I'm sure) try very hard to take that into account and respond compassionately to their offers of help, and to follow-up compassionately with them afterward when you think they might have been hurt by your rebuff. These are appropriate ways for you to honor their good intentions. On the other hand, feeling obligated to accept help no matter how it's offered is not an appropriate way of doing so, in my opinion.

5) Shouldn't I appreciate more and judge less?

Probably. If you think you should, you probably should. But like I said, appreciation can and should (again, in my opinion) take the form of compassionately working through these relationships - not feeling bound to accept everything you're offered.

The offering of a gift does not imply an obligation to receive it, and nor does the receiver's gratitude for the gesture (or at least for the heart behind the gesture) imply such an obligation. It's hard to refuse a gift given with a good heart, and it's hard to have one's gift refused, but a gift is a gift: freely given, freely received (or not). Loving relationships are characterized by these gestures of offered gifts, but only coercive relationships are characterized by obligation. (And most family relationships are a combination of the two.)

Jen said...


I don't think self-examination frees me from hypocrisy or gives me some sort of moral superiority. It just means I'm aware enough to identify it and choose how I handle it.

The core of the issue with my family is that they see physical differences like mine as problems whereas I see them as variations in human existence. From that point it all gets complicated. While we make progress in everyone interacting better, that basic fact is not going to change, so there will always be misunderstanding.

I guess what I wish is for my family to stop going to extremes. They either see me as helpless or are amazed when I do ordinary things. I must either be super competent at something or obviously I can't do it because I'm blind.

The word broken was applied to me so far back in my childhood that I can't remember when it began. I've managed to get out from under it, but my family more or less still thinks that way.

I have never been good at either patience or diplomacy. *laugh* You don't know me well enough yet, obviously. I don't feel comfortable relaying family frustrations in any detail here, but sometime ask me if you want to know about it.

Jen said...


If there's one thing I know for certain about you, it's that you never are either half baked or half assed about anything.

While compassion is not lacking in my family, I haven't noticed a lot of working through things. It's just not how any of us were raised. We do angry words, holding it in, and passive aggressive well.

This blog is not meant to air family grievances, though. I posted about what I see as my hypocrisy because I know many disabled people feel the same way and struggle with the same thing. WE are born into our families but voluntarily acquire our friends, so friends often behave the way we would like and families... vary drastically in how they handle things.

What you said about the obligations of the giver and receiver are definite food for thought. With disabled kids/siblings, I often see more an environment of obligation than freely given, partly because there is the distinction of concrete need. If your sibling needs help off the toilet, you do it whether you want to or not. The person on the toilet needs the help, so they take it no matter how it comes. It changes the nature of the situation and alters dynamics. It goes beyond the gift of help.

As my friend, you have on some level decided that the things you have to do for me are worth it in order to have me as a friend. Families are not given that kind of choice. My sisters, for example, have probably both had discussions with their husbands about how they might have to "take care of me" at some point. Society places that obligation/responsibility on them.

I'm wishing I could find a sibling of a disabled person who could better articulate how they feel about all this.