If You Have Come To Help

I heard on "This American Life" that you're never supposed to talk about your dreams because no one is interested in them. The exception, of course, is when you have a dream about the person you are talking to. We all like to be stars in other peoples' subconsciouses. 

The dream I had yesterday was not about you. But maybe it was, kind of, because it was so clearly about me, and the exact epicenter of all my greatest fears. In that way, it might be kind of about you, because I am mostly scared of people. More specifically, I am scared of screwing up all my relationships.

It's summer and I'm on a hill near a strip mall. Abruptly my friend/ lover/ sister (?) appears and says, "Sophie, what about your children?" I immediately but suddenly remember all the children I adopted. Years ago, when I first started teaching, I had seen a child suffering, and I had decided I was going to save him. So I adopted him. Then I got busy and said I would come back for him when I was less busy. Along the way, I met another child. He was clearly in pain. I had decided to adopt him too. This happened six more times, at least. For a while, I had remembered to care for my children. I had visited them on weekends and made sure they were fed and cared for, but for the last few years, I had neglected them. Now it had gotten to the point that I had forgotten about them. Upon remembering, I frantically look for them. They are all easy to find -- they are exactly where I left them -- but they are suffering profoundly. Robots had been feeding them and so they are not hungry, but they feel unloved. When I return, each one looks at me with gratitude and longing. But I have a gnawing sense that I can't stay. Too much to do! I leave one on the ground playing with rocks. I say, "I'll return soon my love," but I know it is a lie; I am out of emotional space. He knows it is a lie too. He starts to cry, silently, because he doesn't want me to know how much I am hurting him. He says, "But please don't go. Where are you going? Please don't go." Louder and louder until I wake up.

When I woke up from this dream, I was sweat-crying, kind of like people do in the movie "Inception." It took me half an hour to shake the feeling that I had a bunch of children out there, waiting patiently for me to come and take care of them, slowly wasting away from lack of love. 

I actually went for  a walk to try to get the feeling out of my bones. But, although I was eventually able to use logic to discern that in fact, no, I had not adopted any children in my life (at least in part because I am totally unfit to do such a thing, and adoption agencies are good at knowing that*), the emotion went a lot deeper than dream-application.

Almost all of my nightmares follow the same narrative arc: There is someone I really love. They are in some kind of danger. I try to help. In trying to help, I actually make matters worse. Not just a little bit worse -- so much worse that it's practically farcical. Usually I end up accidentally killing the people I love. I have been having nightmares like this since I was a very young child. In the child versions, I was always (ALWAYS) accidentally killing Winnie the Pooh. This was unbelievably traumatic. 

As an adult, I recognize that this nightmare pattern is not accidental. It's not like my subconscious sorts through all the possible scenarios that it could dream about and just randomly picks out accidentally-kill-the-ones-you-love every single time. It took me an embarrassingly long time for me to figure this out, mind you. For a long time I was like, "One of these days, my subconscious is going to pick out fly-over-a-city-and-then-have-bondage-sex-with-Ryan-Gosling." But that will never happen. Because my subconscious wants me to suffer. (Not in the way Ryan would. In an unsexy, kind of depressing way.)

I love hard, but I don't always do it in a way that is healthy. For most of my life I believed that to love was to sacrifice. You showed people you cared about them by dropping everything and mending their problems. You protected them from harm; you made them dinner; you gave them massages; you cleaned their room for them when they were away; you spent a thousand dollars on them on their birthdays. You were never allowed to feel drained. You were never allowed to complain. And, most importantly, you were never allowed to ask for help if you were suffering. Love meant swallowing your suffering for someone else. 

I came into teaching with this mindset. In fact, in my first year of teaching, I remember saying on the phone to my mother "I wish I could adopt him" a lot of times, referring to students I was working with. I think I even considered it seriously from time to time. I had the sense that I had the capacity to save everyone, and that that was my purpose. Six years later, I am just starting to understand how selfish I was being.

There's this quote from Murri artist Lilla Watson that all the best activist groups put up on their conference room walls: "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." I'm realizing lately that this idea needs to be not only central to all service work we choose to do in our lives, but also in the way we love each other.

Love is reciprocal. That's what is true at its center. Giving unconditionally breeds resentment, and often the resentment is unearned. It is just as much a gift to be willing to be cared for as it is to do the caring. There is a push and a pull, and when that is absent, a relationship collapses.

Unfortunately, I can write that all day and still find myself "adopting children," so to speak -- often, they are people who can take care of themselves, but I decide, totally arbitrarily, that they cannot. And then, when I feel overwhelmed at the task of taking care of them, I panic and disappear, and I end up hurting them. When in fact, all they want is just a person to spend some mutually beneficial time with. They want to love and be loved. Just like everyone on earth.


*ADOPTION AGENCY: Hello! I see you want to adopt this child.

ME: Yes! (Sob.)

ADOPTION AGENCY: I'm sorry... Are you crying?

ME: Yeah. Sorry. I just get SO EMOTIONAL around children, and around issues, and around your receptionist, Brenda. 

ADOPTION AGENCY: You get emotional around Brenda?

ME: Yes. We dated for a while. I have slept with basically everyone. I don't say no easily and I'm attracted to everyone I meet. I'm actually pretty attracted to you right now. Is that inappropriate for me to tell you?

ADOPTION AGENCY: I'm going to ignore that question.

ME: Thank you.

ADOPTION AGENCY: Is there anything else you'd like us to know before we get started with the process?

ME: I own three copies of each season of Gilmore Girls because I binge watch it when I am depressed, and since I'm depressed so much I have spent approximately seven years of my life watching Gilmore Girls. So naturally a bunch of the discs are scratched, hence having to buy the second and third copies. I can easily eat an extra large pizza by myself, all alone, which I know because I just did that one hour ago. My most functional relationship is with my cat, and even then we fight all the time. He says I don't really understand boundaries, which is actually feedback that I get a LOT.

ADOPTION AGENCY: You should leave.

ME: Yeah. You're right.