When Helping Isn’t Helping – The Selfish Act of Giving

“Cut down my trunk and make a boat,” said the tree. “Then you can sail away and be happy.” And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away. And the tree was happy…But not really.

Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
Help. 

Do you need any? I’m sure I can find some between my shoulder blades.

Really, it’s no bother. I’m happy to do it. My pleasure. Think nothing of it. I’ve got this.

Me? Oh, I’m okay. I don’t need a thing, but thanks for asking. Nothing to complain about. I’m A-okay, just fine.

It’s fine.

Everything is fine.

But enough about me. How can I help you?

When I read The Giving Tree as a child, I was fond of the friendship between a growing boy and a tree rooted in place. It was a sweet story about a boy who, through the years, would return to visit the tree. The tree was always happy to give something of value to the boy. In the end, the tree was leveled to a knotted stump from giving all she had to the boy over the years. But even then, she offered her stump as a seat for an old man needing a rest. And the tree was happy.

So happy.

Deliriously happy.

At least that’s how I remembered it as a kid.

I read this timeless classic to my daughter at bedtime tonight, and guess what?

This story is complete and utter B.S. Sorry, Shel.

What about this little snot-nosed kid? Taking, taking, taking and not a single thank you in return? In all of his visits to the tree, did he ever ask her, “How ya holding up without that trunk of yours?” Not once. He just came looking for something else to saw off for his own benefit.

And that seriously co-dependent tree? Was it rewarding to give of herself until she had nothing left? Does this type of selflessness truly make one happy? Grin and bear it, they say. Power through.

It’s funny, though, now that I think about it. This absurd, one-sided saga sounds eerily familiar.

There once was a working mom who thought she was Atlas, and the world was hers to carry. Every day, she hurled it onto her tired shoulders and trudged along, getting nowhere fast. “Look at my strength!” she boasted. “Isn’t it something to behold?” The passersby were undoubtedly impressed. “But aren’t you worried about getting hurt?” asked one of them. “I’m more afraid of what will happen if I let it go,” she replied.

There are times the world feels heavy, and oh what a fantastic, welcomed distraction when it does. As moms, community servants, wives, sisters, friends, employees, advisers, counselors, and vessels for venting – aren’t we all at some point like Mother Atlas? Like The Giving Tree? We carry the burdens of others. We give of our labored fruits. We make ourselves the sacrificial lamb so others can succeed.

Over a lifetime, we shovel out hours, sweat, and tears. We languish over a friend who is hurting . . . a broken relationship . . . an empty donation box . . . a world in debt that looks to us as its creditor. “Help,” the world says, or even sometimes, not. Regardless, here we are, waiting to dive into another dilemma never short in supply. We are not fulfilled until we have nothing left. Then we ask ourselves, “What else can I muster? Where am I falling short?”

Friends, here’s one of the hardest truths I’ve had to swallow like spoonfuls of sand:

Helping others can be the worst kind of selfish.

I know you’re thinking I’m batty at this point, but hear me out. Before I practiced healthy coping skills, my idea of helping was a mad method to deflect pain. It was a way to focus on problems of which I had no ownership. Giving to others was my excuse to ignore.

Ignore my shortcomings as a parent, spouse, and daughter.

Ignore my misgivings about the future.

Ignore my defects of character.

Ignore the shadows of my past I had stowed away in the corner of a dark, locked room.

Helping others also meant I was worthy. It meant I mattered. It mean’t I could offer something of significance to a hurting world, even when I myself was unraveling.

Giving of myself meant I kept busy with everything and nothing at the same time. Running 90 to nothing shielded me from addressing the goals I had for my own life. After all, isn’t it easier to blame a failure to act on lack of time rather than fear?

It’s been said that we must give more in order to get more. But what if you give of yourself until you are no longer there? Until you’re unrecognizable? I was only flashes of light from others’ eyes. Only remnants of others’ pain cradled in my arms. An empty cup drained of recognition.

In the shuffle of feigned benevolence, I had forgotten I was also a person hidden under the weight of the world . . . another spirit in need of saving.

So, to all of my Giving Trees of goodwill out there . . . to my Mother Atlases, REST.

Be still.

Be silent.

Listen.

Do you recognize that small voice inside of you? Is she asking for help? Would a Giving Tree like yourself ignore her?

No, that would be unnatural. You are a giver.

So give.

Give yourself a warm blanket, a hot cup of tea, and some grace.

Wrap yourself in love and never forget you are worth saving.

Today, rest.

Tomorrow you can ask the hard questions about boundaries and motives and fears, but for today, quiet the wind through your branches, settle down in your roots, and give grace. Sometimes that’s all you need to save the world.

The Case of the Hidden Ham – How Hogging your Emotions Harms your Health

It’s amazing what I think others can’t see about me. I wrap it up tightly into a ball and clench it in my fist behind my back, hoping they won’t ask me what’s hiding behind there. But like anything that’s not dealt with over time, what you conceal about yourself can get bigger and bigger until eventually, you could end up like the lady who tried to steal an entire Smithfield ham by shoving it up her Hawaiian muumuu dress.

Shocking analogy? Not to a grocery store cashier. My first job at the age of 16 taught me about real life responsibilities, hard work, communication, and the exciting revelation that people are strange. Somewhere on that strange spectrum is where I reside, shifting left and right depending on how ordinary my peers appear to be at any given time. Somewhere on that same strange spectrum is that ham-crazed, Hawaiian muumuu lady. I’d like to imagine we’ve crossed each other at some point in the middle, giving a slight wave and hint of recognition as we bypass each other in the deli aisle we call life. Aloha, Hawaiian muumuu lady. What’s the price of bacon these days?

I’ll preface this story by saying not all who steal food from a grocery store do it for the same reasons. Some are desperate and hungry. Some forget their wallet at home and are too proud or inconvenienced to leave a buggy full of groceries in the middle of the aisle. Some see stealing as a challenge to usurp the moral code. Others rationalize they are owed that extra case of Mountain Dews hiding underneath their cart because the stocking clerk was rude when they asked what aisle the elusive chow mein noodles were located. For the muumuu lady, I have to believe her feat to disclose a thirty-pound ham between her thighs had to be a quiet cry for help.

As she waddled towards the double-door exit, her arms reaching south to conceal the pig beneath her floral patterned dress, I’m sure she could smell freedom in the air mixed with the aroma of hickory smoke wafting from her bloomers. Unfortunately for her, my spastic, stuttering manager was quick to respond to her beeline for the exit.

“Ma’am, I-I-I need you to s-stop! I know there’s s-s-something under your d-d-dress. I need to s-s-see what’s u-under there.”

The muumuu lady came alive. “How dare you! You may not look under my dress, you pervert!” she yelled while slowly losing her Kung Fu grip on the ham. She toddled with all her might through the sliding door exit, my manager close at her heels. It was then that the muumuu lady poorly attempted a getaway trot across the parking lot, ham still in tow. Hard lesson to learn: Sometimes, it’s important to know your limitations.

One, two, three steps into her feeble escape, she tripped over a curb obstructed by her protruding belly. As she rolled across the parking lot in one direction, her hibiscus floral pattern gleaming in the sun, the ham tumbled away from her as if attempting a last ditch effort at freedom.

Why do I tell you all this? In hopes you’ll learn some of the same valuable lessons I learned that day:

  1. Don’t go sticking hams where they don’t belong.
  2. A small, spiral-cut ham is just as tasty as a 30-pound whole ham and much easier to conceal in one’s bosom.
  3. When you try to hide something that big in your life, it’s bound to come rolling out of you at the most inopportune time.

For the sake of this blog, let’s focus on lesson #3.

Now if you know me personally, you’re aware that I don’t shy away from sharing my feelings on various subjects, my dreams of what is to come, and ideas to collectively dissect with one, two, or twenty of my creative thinking friends.

But what about those things that feel uncomfortable? Those inconvenient truths about myself? Those things I dare not rise to the surface for fear of rejection or judgement or the unknown? The past traumas and resentments rooted in my mind? The unspoken conversations that reel through my mind but never surface? Eventually all those feelings jumble up inside of me, wrap around my chest, and anchor near my feet like a gigantic ham hiding beneath pretty, floral fabric.

I have witnessed emotional explosions from friends and family members. They were generally the quiet ones. You know the type. They never complain when their Subway artist puts mustard on their cold cut when they explicitly ask for mayo. Instead of returning a gifted toaster because it shorted out, it rests on the shelf in case the gift giver arrives unannounced to their home. Their spouses still thinks they love those fat-wedged shoes they gave them at Christmas. They hate those fat-wedged shoes. They don’t rock boats. They sail through storms, their heads covered from the wind and rain. They’re quiet until they’re not. Then, the ham rolls out from under them just when they least expect it. They explode with anger from the tiniest mishap in their lives and their loved ones look around and wonder, “Who the hell is this person?”

You may be reading this and think, “that’s me,” or you could be thinking, “I have no issues with expressing my feelings as they come.” Whether you choose to compartmentalize your feelings or express them as quickly as they arrive in your heart and mind, everyone has a ham hidden somewhere in the folds of their muumuu. It may be pain from a past experience that you chose to store away until you are strong enough to unpack it. It could be a festering thought that never seems to get communicated properly. It could be a passion of yours that you’ve left untapped, waiting for the “right time” to act on it. Whatever the case, a good ham is a terrible thing to waste. The more you hold that stuff in, the longer it will take for you to unravel it in the future. Don’t wait. If you don’t want to share your thoughts with the world (I’m speaking to you introverts), tell a close friend, write it down in a journal, or speak to a counselor. Get those thoughts out before they become dynamite. Think of all the wonderful things you can store in that brilliant mind of yours once you clear it of all the clutter.

Speak your truth. Speak your feelings. Speak your passions. If you’re like me, the art of sharing your insides to the outside world in whatever fashion you choose can make you feel ten times lighter . . . or at least thirty pounds lighter now that the ham’s out of the way.

And despite the muumuu lady’s actions the day of the pork thievery, I’m sure she just needed to let it all out somehow, too. It also makes for a killer lesson to teach her grandkids: Never go to the grocery store hungry.

Have a comment? Share your thoughts with me in the comments section or contact me at chelsea.kauchick@gmail.com. Don’t forget to follow and subscribe! You can also like my Cuprunnethover page on Facebook for blog updates stress management. Thanks for reading!