Saturday, August 14, 2010

Through my most grievous fault

My impulse to ‘help’ others is deeply ingrained. It is an impulse so strong that I find myself holding the lift open for the next person who might still be metres away to the consternation of other people already in the lift who are keen to get off. My do-gooding can hold some people up as much as it might be helpful for others.

My husband hates it.
‘Stop social working,’ he says. ‘Stop being such a do-gooder.’

When I first met my husband and told him of my qualification then as a social worker he said with a twinkle in his eye: ‘Social workers are mawkish dabblers in the dirty washing of others’.

The saying has stuck, but please all you social workers, do not take offense. He meant it only as a joke, but we all know that jokes carry kernels of truthfulness.

Do-gooders are boring people. If I meet such a person in life I tend to dislike them. I see myself reflected there. It is an appalling trait masquerading as helpful.

My mother’s mother whom I met only once when she came to Australia to spend several months with her oldest daughter’s family now settled here, suffered from scruples, or so my mother has told me.

Scruples are the knotty bits at the end of ropes, thick stubby short ropes attached to a handle that the monks used in days gone by as a means of whipping themselves. They walked along the streets their backs bloodied and striped in raised welts from their self-flagellation.
‘Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.’ Through my fault. My own fault. Through my most grievous fault.

They had sinned. Sins of impurity, sins of selfishness, sins of lust and of greed and they must atone for these sins to a God whom in their minds derived some satisfaction from their bloody mortification.

My grandmother took herself to the priest for confession and although she did not use a scruple stick, she used her words.
‘Father I have sinned. You can never know how badly.’
‘In what way have you sinned my child?’
‘I cannot say, Father. I cannot find words to tell you how bad I have been, but God knows and how can he ever forgive me?’

The priest by now familiar with my grandmother’s litany of remorse tried to cut her short.
‘Say three Hail Marys. I absolve you now, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’.

My grandmother shuffled from the church after saying her prayers, went back to her home and her kitchen, her husband, her children and her sinfulness only to return later that day with the same complaint.
‘Father, you do not realise how bad I have been.’
The priest tried again, day after day, week after week, month after month, but to no avail.

On her trip to Australia my grandmother worried. She wore a summer dress with pencil thin straps over her shoulders. Too much flesh visible. But in the heat of Australia, my mother reasoned, many women dressed this way. For my grandmother, another sin for the priest back home.

When she returned to Holland, my grandmother took to her bed. She was 67 years old. The scruples had turned into cancerous knots in her belly and she died.

I think of her often when I consider this pressure in me to relieve myself of the burden of my existence. I have long ago relinquished any belief in such a cruel and heartless god as one who might demand relentless recompense, and yet the need to help goes on.

The monks who flagellated themselves in the eyes of the people and of their God were motivated by a desire to punish themselves. Helping others compulsively has similar overtones. For which reason we must set limits on such impulses and allow others to help us in turn. Turn the selfishness of selflessness into a shared exchange, a give and take.

Lesson learned?
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