When I read The Fountainhead I got very annoyed with Ayn Rand’s position that altruism is a misguided philosophy. She seemed to be saying that since it’s a dog eat dog world, we should look out for ourselves without a care about the state of the rest of humankind. That whole philosophy just felt so selfish and self-serving. At the time, I took major issue with this philosophical pointof view. With age has come a tempered response to Rand’s philosophy.
I do believe that I should help others as I am able and so moved to do. AND I know now that there is a trap in always choosing to act from the platform of service and helping others. I know that I have a great propensity to see the world as ‘all or nothing at all’, black and white with few shades of grey, selfish or giving. I have not, throughout my life, occupied a middle ground in doing anything much. That includes how I have interacted in the lives of others I have felt the need to rescue.
Even as I railed against what I thought of as the expectations of others, I felt that I had to protect everyone. I cannot count the times that, even as I was at war with my sisters, I felt the need to make things better for them. After my father died, I felt the need to care for my mother and make her life easier. I don’t think that I was so arrogant as to believe that I knew best. I just didn’t want those I care about to have to deal with confusion, pain, or disappointment. I wanted to take their burden unto myself.
As a teacher, I used to watch my students make what were, to me, lousy choices which would have the possibility of serious consequences. I would try to intervene and get them to consider what they were choosing to do and consider what else they might choose. Weigh the pros and cons and make an informed choice – which choice I always believed I knew best. I prided myself as being someone my students could come to who would always listen so that they felt heard. And then I would wear their problems home and worry the rest of the day away.
I have prided myself with the fact that I have always stood up for the underdog and the down-trodden and marginalized. I have prided myself by saying that I believe in the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. I have held myself as compassionate and empathetic and helpful and caring – often moreso than others of my acquaintance.
I’ve turned myself into a major emotional pretzel worrying about others and what they were facing and wondering how I could make their lives easier – my sisters and my mother and my niece and my students and my best friend. I got really good at doing that – hovering and mothering and smothering.
And as those who I sought to help began to fight against my efforts because my efforts and I became too much for them to deal with, I would be hurt by their response and yet would redouble my efforts. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough, doing enough, being responsive enough.
I had to be ‘Jean Winter – Saviour of Everyone’!
As I write this, I can laugh now. I understand now that having a Messiah Complex is a subtle trap. While I was feeling so good about myself for doing good, I wasn’t really helping. In seeking to be validated by others as a caring and valuable person who contributed to the welfare of all, I lost the one person who really matters most in my world – mySelf. I put what I believed to be everyone else’s needs and cares and wants before my own. I chose to act for their welfare without really knowing why I was choosing to act as I did.
I used to worry that if I didn’t help, I would lose others – that they would reject me because I didn’t put their needs before my own. Funny how it works, but that has not happened. Consciously letting go of my Messiah Complex has attracted those I care about to me.
It is still not easy for me to let go of this role of rescuer and saviour which I’ve fulfilled for so much of my life. I still want the best for everyone in my world. I still want to help. What I’m learning to do is to let everyone know that I’m available to help as I can, if and when they need me. I’m there as an ear to hear, someone to give counsel, an extra pair of hands. AND I’m learning to wait for others to ask rather than barge in and take over. I’m learning to ask, “How can I help you best? What do you want me to do?” AND then I’m choosing for mySelf if I am able to help. By waiting and asking and listening and then acting, I’m finally choosing mySelf. AND I am finally letting go of my Messiah Complex.
As the topic of altruism has been top of mind for me lately, I really appreciate this post and the question: “How can I help you best?” for me is about learning to accept others where they are. Thank you Jean!
You really found a way to make this whole prsceos easier.