Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Giving help without wasting away like soap

If you try to cleanse others - like soap, you will waste away in the process! Malagasy)

Dear Zayda,

Those of us who think we can cleanse others need to think again. First-borns like you and me may start out with the job of “cleansing” younger brothers and sisters, and we may want to continue the job for life. Some of us may even find careers – as nurses, teachers, social workers, and even human rights activists – that help us to feel we are cleansing others. Those who waste away, without succeeding at cleansing others, risk feeling angry at themselves, at the still uncleansed, and sometimes at the world.

Try as hard as we may, we cannot cleanse anyone who wants to keep his dirt. The best help we can give is to point the person to the soap and the water and show them how to cleanse themselves. Babies need people to cleanse them, but children need gradually to learn how to look after themselves. We have to be careful not to make babies of grownups, not to keep doing for them what they can do for themselves.

Still, many of us seem unable to help ourselves. Perhaps we know that deep down we are the ones that need the cleansing, but it seems easier to cleanse others than ourselves.

For example, Marie had some self-esteem issues when she married Tom. When she was growing up, all Marie knew of her mother were the occasional phone calls from New York and the barrels that arrived on birthdays and at Christmas.

Her friends thought Tom was a bit clingy, but Marie loved being needed. Tom abused drugs, but Marie was sure that she could cleanse him of that habit. She believed her love would make up for Tom’s mood swings. She had to go to hospital once when he hit her and made her ear bleed. However, she married Tom as soon as her bruises healed. Within two years of the marriage, Marie was abusing drugs as well.

When we help others, we need to keep asking ourselves if this help is helpful to the other person or to ourselves. Is our help making others dependent on us? Does our help give us a change to feel superior to others who seem weaker than ourselves?

Patrick was a bright man who spent several years in prison for fraud. He wanted to write about his experiences so as to help others who might be tempted to break the law. Sarah, who also had dreams of being a writer, decided to help Patrick. She did not want to give Patrick money just like that. She therefore hired him to work in her garden in exchange for as much as she could afford to pay him. In the mean time, she arranged for him to attend writing classes, free of charge. She also set up counseling sessions to help him overcome the trauma of the years he spent in prison. In addition she introduced Patrick to friends who might help him earn money that would at least keep Patrick's landlord from throwing him out.

Janet was proud of the strides Patrick was making. Her garden was the talk of the neighborhood, and Patrick got jobs looking after other people’s gardens. His creative writing teacher reported that he had talent and was one of the best in his class.

One day, Janet received a call expressing sadness at the passing of Patrick’s mother. As far as Janet knew, the lady had died almost ten years earlier. Gradually, Janet realized that Patrick had returned to his old life. He was, for example, getting Janet’s friends to pay for his writing classes several times over. He begged them not to tell Janet about his appeals to them for money, because she was already so good to him. At first he was asking for small sums, but he needed a lot more money to “bury his mother”.

Fortunately, Janet did not spend too much time wasting away. She turned her energy into writing, and became a published author.

Zayda, even if we try to cleanse others, we do not have to keep going till we are all wasted away like soap. We can stop. We can learn. We can decide to cleanse ourselves instead. Only then can we help others to help themselves, and let them go if they if they want to use us as props.

By being healthy and whole, we increase the chances that people around us will at least moving in the direction of being healthy and whole.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

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