Monday, September 17, 2007

How has blogging been good for me.

Let me count the ways.

First, as I stare down the barrel of assisted reproduction, I feel no ambivalence. Granted, this is not strictly from blogging, more from reading infertility blogs for these many years now. ART in all its many forms has become the most natural thing to me, the point brought home again by HBO's new show Tell Me You Love Me where one of the couples is dealing with inability to conceive for over a year. They talk about getting tested and getting treatment as of pathologizing the process, and I feel as if I am watching them through the wrong end of the telescope. While having insurance coverage for ART, of course, also helps, I almost feel like I cheated on this particular exam-- I got to acceptance and even welcoming by sneaking a peak at everyone else's final papers and all of their rough drafts-- but I don't care. There's been so much I've had to wrap my mind around in the last seven and a half months that I am glad I don't have to work on this, at least on this. I don't want to present myself here as a fearless leader of a roving band of IVF avengers, seeking out treatment wherever it may hide-- it's not that my hands didn't suddenly tremble when I started reading the packet that arrived from my future clinic this weekend, but it was, I am fairly certain of it, from the reality of this new hope right there in my hot little hands. And I do mean little-- you should see how small my hands are.

Second, well... second. It's taken me over a week to process this sufficiently to write of it at all, and I am still not sure I have fully processed it. I changed someone's mind. And her ways. And I did that because all of you gave me the courage to believe that my reactions to the dumb things people say are not unusual, that it's not my problem, and that nobody gets to tell me how I should feel. See, there is this woman, let's call her T, who lives in my city. She is a former student and a friend of a musician friend of my parents, who lives in the same city as them. When T and her family first moved to my City from the Old Country, the friend of my parents asked us to help them a bit. Which we did-- had them over for dinner, went to their place, told them about some resources, etc. No problem. That was seven or eight years ago. A few months back, this friend of the family asks my sister who was visiting my parents at the time to take with her some books for T. My sister does, promptly dumps them in my house and we both forget about it. Well, I saw them once or twice since then, but had no desire to do anything about it. Why? Because I had a feeling this very nice woman was going to say a lot of stupid stuff to me. With the best of intentions, of course.

Long story short, the friend talks to T a few weeks back, finds out she doesn't have the books yet, and the whole thing ensues where our mom is after my sister and me for not delivering the books, and then T starts calling and leaving messages too. Finally, I decide to take a deep breath and take the books to her. Which I do Friday before last. My mom likes to tell me that not everyone is after me, and that I shouldn't be afraid to see people because they may say stupid things. But at least in this case my feeling was right on the money-- T said just about every well-meaning stupid thing there is, and because I was sure I was not insane (or at least insane in the exact same way a lot of you are), I replied calmly, but honestly to every one of them. From implying that seeing A was "done to me" (excuse me? that was my choice, I made it, and I do not regret it in the least), to asking whether we are thinking of having another baby (and how does that change the reality of my son being dead?), to saying that it's no way to live (and how do you know how I live? and what gives you the right to judge how I live?), and I few more that I can't ever reconstruct anymore.

The key part of the conversation, although it weaved through and around the above gems, was the one that started with T asking whether I have heard of X, and getting up to go get the book by X because she "would like me to read it." I replied "Please don't," and had to say it several times before she understood that I meant it. From there, she got to tell me that I don't understand that she just wants to help me, and I got to tell her that I understand perfectly that she is trying to make herself feel better by making herself feel that she helped me. Is it so bad that people feel bad about what happened to you and want to help you, she asked.

The answer, although I am sure you all know it by heart, took me a good long while to get through to her. Of course it's not bad that people want to help. It is bad when people confuse genuine altruistic help with egotistical need to feel like they helped, to make themselves feel better about the unjust world by feeling like they helped to fix it. Even when in reality they haven't. Even when in reality they made it worse. T tried to defend by attacking, by implying that it's uncool of me to make people feel bad for wanting to help. No, it isn't. People who really want to help don't care what form it takes. They do what we, the people who are hurting, need them to do for us. Sometimes it's listening, sometimes it's food, sometimes it's booze, and sometimes it's kindness of delivering sensitive news in a sensitive way, or of understanding that we can't share in their joy right now. This is altruistic help, it's help for our sake. Egotistical help is where the person offering it knows exactly what we need, even when we disagree, and is going to push it on us come hell or high water, or will be righteously pissed when we refuse. This is wanting to be seen helping, to rescue us, to be single-handedly responsible for us "making it." And it only compounds our grief and pain to also make us responsible for not hurting the feelings of the egotistical helpers, because you know, they wanted to help. Therefore, I refuse this burden. I refuse to assume the mantle of having to be the model of grace and comfort for those seeking to make their world feel right again even if it means messing mine up some more. I refuse it not just because it is unfair, although it is grossly unfair, to ask us to also take care of everyone else's tender feelings, but because it helps nobody, not a single person except for the egotistical helper. But even that isn't the kicker. The kicker is that having received the confirmation of their bestest most kind and generous helper in the world status, the egotistical helper in question is only going to go on to do this again. Maybe to one of you, and maybe to someone who will come after us. Because as sure as the world goes on turning, rhythmically, evenly, without fail, even as our individual worlds stop, and then start on again, uneven, screaching, through the haze and the pain of our stories, there will be those who come after us. And so it stops with me, if I can help it. I hand out no medals, and I speak the truth.

This is why, I said, bereaved parents don't tend to tell others what to do. We say "I am here if you want to talk," or "this is what helped me," or, simply, "I hear you." We understand that there is nothing to do. This pain will not be put in a box, it won't be caged, it won't be willed away. This is the pain each of us has to learn to live with, and there is no cheat sheet for this exam. And so we abide with each other-- we offer the kindness of understanding, of encouragement, but never judgement, never solutions. Because we know that there are no solutions.

The miracle is, I got through. She understood, or, as she said, started to understand, and apologized. It took an hour and a half and left me wrung out and unable to think it all through for a while. But worth it, I think.

As long as the second part turned out, I still owe you a third. And the third has been most directly beneficial to my household. See, a little while ago, Niobe wrote of grocery shopping and writing. While I didn't comment on that post, I have been mulling it over, and I realized not only that I do feel very similarly about writing, but that I do not, to any degree of approximation, keep a fridge remotely as organized as Niobe's. So what did I do about it? Although the thought of recruiting Niobe to do my shopping did occur to me, fleetingly, I decided instead to stand up to my own deadly sin (sloth) and cleaned my fridge. Took everything out, threw away things that were going bad, or haven't been used, washed the shelves and the drawers, and arranged everything that remained with a certain degree of organization. I am still very proud of that accomplishment, and even hope to tackle some long-brewing writing projects (read: serious posts that need a great deal of thought to come out right) in the near future. Although this one took much longer and required much more concentration than I originally expected, so maybe I already started.


niobe said...

I feel so much better just knowing that your fridge is organized. Next, we can work on arranging the spices alphabetically.

Catherine said...

I refuse to assume the mantle of having to be the model of grace and comfort for those seeking to make their world feel right again even if it means messing mine up some more.

I love this.

Lori said...

Phew!! I feel wrung out only reading about your conversation. You are my hero. I don't know if I could have done that, but couldn't agree with you more. It is thrilling to think that you really did get through to her, and that maybe she might approach a grieving friend differently in the future. Let us hope.

I thought this was brilliant. I know I am going to come back and re-read it several more times.

Oh, and CONGRATULATIONS on cleaning out your fridge! There is nothing I love more than a successful organization project!

delphi said...

Ditto what Lori said!

Beruriah said...

You're a martyr. Can I just print this out and distribute it?

I'll have to return to it, too, in the future.

Adelynne said...

You know I'm about to show the true colors of my undergraduate degree some more.

You're separating something that is intrinsically linked - altruism is a very complex behavior - and you're classing it as black and white. Those people who help in the way that's comforting get just as much of an ego boost as those you term "egotistical." That's human nature.

The difference is how the altruistic behavior affects you. No one (aside from your MIL) says to themselves "I will force this help on them whether they like it or not."

People hear of something that touches them in some way, they have the urge to do something. My friend lost her bag in which she carried her wallet, cell phone, iPod, and digital camera. I organized a whip-around to help offset the expense and helped her replace the phone since she's in the same network as I am. You bet I feel good about myself now that it's done. But I didn't start out thinking that I would be this awesome if I did these things. I started out thinking that she's had a horrible month, this is just the last straw, what can I do to offset her troubles?

The difference you're trying to explain doesn't come from the impulse - it comes in the form this altruism takes. Some people are just not good at reading what people actually need. Not everyone is perceptive, not everyone is intuitive, and that's just life. That doesn't mean their motive isn't just as good as the person who hits the mark.

It's especially relevant, I feel, right around Yom Kippur to note that all people miss the mark. And though many have missed the mark with you in this case, that's all they're doing. (Once again, MIL excepted.) Telling them that they suck (in not so many words) and that you aren't interested in associating with them is the equivalent of putting a stumbling block before the blind.

A way of putting this is to say "I think you are trying to help, but this isn't helpful to me." What you're saying is "You're only doing this to me to make yourself feel good, and I'm not interested in helping you do that."

Julia said...

Niobe, you crack me up. :) I have a rotating spice rack. Will that do? Or do I have to arrange alphabetically withing that rack?

Catherine, Lori, Dephi, Beruriah-- thank you for your kind words. Feel free to print out, B. If you feel like making airplanes out of it afterwards, it's cool with me too.

Adelynne, sis, I do appreciate your point and your degrees. Perhaps I wasn't as clear as I wanted to be, but I don't generally go around labeling people as egotistical from the get go. I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt and a chance to do it right by saying something very much like what you suggested. In this particular case, please believe me that I was triple extra careful knowing that it can make its way back up the chain to our parental units. I told her what she was saying wasn't helpful, although I was sure she had the best intentions, and she kept saying that I didn't understand and that she is only suggesting these things because she thinks I am all kinds of extra special and enlightened and will benefit greatly from this X thing.

I am making a distinction of altruism vs egotism in the sense that altruists (in my definition) don't need to be right, they don't need to have always known how to do it. Instead, they need to know that what they are doing is what we need them to do. They take cues from those they are trying to help, or they ask for what would be helpful. Their sense of satisfaction comes from knowing that they helped, in whatever way was needed, rather than from implementing whatever they think should be helpful. And that is the fundamental difference.

This is what abiding means-- being present for what the other person needs, but not pushing own agenda. I really like that word. And I think that it is a very hard skill to master, because we all tend to think that we know just the thing. Sometimes, there are actual things to do, as in the case of your friend-- there were material things you could help replace, and that would likely help, at least some. It takes a great tragedy to realize that sometimes nothing helps, by definition, and the best you could hope to do is bring some comfort. And then you try very hard to learn to abide, to take your ego right out of it, to just do what the person in pain needs you to do. Even if you would never do or want that for yourself should you be in their shoes. Because at that particular point, you are not.

Lori said...

I would like to add to this interesting discussion that in my experience there really are people who just want to help solely for their own benefit. I call them "ambulance chasers". They like being the person who is first on the scene just so they can tell everyone later that they were that person. They want to be the person that communicates all of the grisly details to everyone else, simply for the attention that brings them. And then, as you pointed out, they want to be able to tell everyone how they came up with the perfect solution and swooped in and rescued you from your pain, just so everyone can pat them on the back and tell them how great they are.

They may be in the minority, these ambulance chasers, but they exist. I know. I've met them.

slouching mom said...

Julia: This is a phenomenal post. The energy, even passion, you brought to this topic swept me up and carried me right along with you.


meg said...

I don't know how you had the energy to go through over an hour of explaining to this person. You have so much more patience than I do.

Maybe she will act differently, the next time she has to confront grief? I hope she really does get it.

Beruriah said...

A while back I called what Lori calls an "ambulance chaser," a grief groupie. They don't necessarily have to appear out of nowhere, to be a near stranger like mine.

I think perhaps there's a difference between the benefits of altruistic and non-altruistic help. Altruism doesn't exist in a pure form, of course. But it seems to me that the benefit of altruism, for the giver and receiver, is intimacy. Increased love and caring between people. That feeling truly enveloped us after Natan's death, the community of people who appeared and took care of us. None of them offered advice. The rabbi and cantor didn't even offer a book until I asked specifically about prayers and rituals. Then it turned out the latter had brought a book just in case I brought up a related question. No assumption of knowing just what I needed. Altruistic people don't assume they know what other people need. Well, they know grieving people need food and companionship, so they bring that. But as for chiming in on HOW anyone should be feeling or acting? Judging out loud? Ever ever resorting to accusations, like "you don't understand I want to help you"? That steps over a line.

It becomes about reordering the experience to their expectations. It also suggests we're failing in some way, and I don't know why anyone would feel the need to intervene like that. No one knows how to act when a person's child, or really any loved one, dies, because beyond the basic fulfilling of bodily needs, no one needs the same thing. The kinds of behaviors we describe as hurtful are such, at least to me, because they further alienate me. Because they try to make us fit into a little box of expectations. The biggest piece of which is the expectation that they should feel better about things after talking to us. The world of grief is just not that neat.

Aurelia said...

This is a very very good post Julia. I've met a few of these people but I've never had the guts to do this, at least not when they were doing to it to me!

You are right about some of these people, especially when they keep insisting and going on and on. Like whenever I don't quite fit their idea of what the "ideal griever" is.

Julia said...

Beruriah, that's a great observation, and such a concise way of putting it-- intimacy as a reward. Thanks.

Lori and B, it stinks to high heaven that people like that have a way of finding those at their most vulnerable and then of making things so much worse.

And I couldn't agree more about reordering the experience or fitting the mold. It's funny that those with the mold are usually those who have not had the experience themselves. Well, not ha-ha funny, at least not until a few martinis later, but you know what I mean.

Julia said...

Upon further consideration, I need to record my pissiness with a particular type of grief mold-holders-- the kind that thinks we should get better pronto because it pains them to see us in so much pain. That one truly drives me bonkers, and is something of a definition of egotistical, no?

Beruriah said...

That works for me - and explains why sometimes misguided but well-meaning comments don't hurt when at other times those same comments will cut deep.

Amelie said...

You are very strong, to stand all this discussion. I think I react quite differently when I meet someone who has recently lost a loved one -- I am so afraid that I could hurt them even more that I say rather little except expressing that I'm sorry, and perhaps asking whether there is anything I can do. I'm afraid this comes across as careless. When I do say something I keep wondering for days whether it was right to say that. I'm very insecure in all this.

Pamela Jeanne said...

Found you through Niobe.

Powerful, powerful post. This in particular: "This is the pain each of us has to learn to live with, and there is no cheat sheet for this exam. And so we abide with each other-- we offer the kindness of understanding, of encouragement, but never judgment, never solutions. Because we know that there are no solutions."

I hear you...

Groves said...

Am I allowed to comment on a post from 2007?

Thank you. Thank you for this. Thank you for speaking up. Thank you for letting at least one "helper" know that they weren't helping. I wish I had your guts.

My details and situation are different, but I can't describe all the ways I've learned to speak grief in ten years of drowning under it.

And I can't describe how many people, claiming to be well-meaning, have demanded to help in the way they wanted to help. Because they wanted to feel like helpers. But they weren't.

So, almost five years later, thank you. Thanks for being braver than I am - and showing me that it really can be done.

Cathy in Missouri