Breaking down fences that make dreadful neighbors

Recently, I was under the weather, and found myself in need of some external help. Some wonderful, sympathetic friends in my town took on the tasks of sending me family meals on days that I was too tired, and to pick up my daughter from school.

This warmth and assistance was invaluable to me. I was truly moved.

But on another level, my emotional response to these gifts disturbed me. I felt strangely burdened. My mind started rattling off ways that I could “repay” these “favors.” I tried hard to STOP calling people for help – even when they’d urged me to call and not to hesitate. I started, in effect, holding up my hand, drawing boundaries, putting up fences — which, we all know, make pretty terrible neighbors.

This made me question myself. When did I become this person who was unable to ‘take’ what was freely and lovingly given? When did I develop such a cold distant sense of self and other? When did I cut myself off from others?

On such days, I found myself missing a distant time in my (relative) youth, when I would show up sick and feverish at a friend’s house, fall asleep on her couch, wake up to a cup of tea and then lunch, fall asleep again, and wake up to snacks and desultory chat. The idea that my friend/s would find me burdensome did not cross my mind. The exchange had already happened emotionally, and that the giving and receiving was merely an outward thing, nothing that had to be earth-shattering. Invaluable, deeply appreciated, thankfully welcomed, yes. But not a disaster for my sense of personal security. Nothing that affected my independence. Nothing that broke my pride.

It is an uncomfortable thing, this fenced-in selfhood. It is frozen, unable to bend, incapable of flexibility,  illiterate in the art of freely accepting. This selfhood is crippled when it is forced to take. “What do I have to do to deserve this? Why are they doing this for me? Will they weary of my need? When I am not able to serve them, but have to accept service, will this disadvantage me socially? Will it put me in a position of emotional dependence, and then what if I am abandoned?” …

Many years of rootless wandering from continent to continent, community to community, do make you feel like you don’t belong – anywhere. Anywhere you go, you have to invest time to develop those solid relationships where giving and receiving are almost the same thing. When you’re done investing time in one place, you move, and start over. You remain somewhat of a stranger.

And then, when you feel like you are a stranger, you start making others into strangers.

I think that during my recent visits to Lahore, my family might have found my habit of saying “thank you, ammi” and “thank you, Svend” to be oddly exotic. Now, it may sound like I was raised ill-mannered, but we did not say ‘thank you’ in my family. We just did things for each other. ‘Thank you’ wasn’t necessary, or expected. ‘Thank you’ was a little bit of fence. Of course ‘thank you’ is a wonderful thing, and it sends out the aroma of warmth and appreciation even into long-standing relationships, and awakens them out of stagnancy. But in some cases, ‘thank you’ doesn’t occur – not because we don’t appreciate, but because the boundaries between self and other are not marked out so very darkly. Do I thank you for being in my heart? Do I thank you for being, in many ways, an integral part of me and my life? How do I set you apart, and then thank you?

In the early centuries of Islamic Sufism, we find numerous stories of Sufis whose shaikhs put them through a period of rigorous training, which included service to others and the performance of low-status work. Often, they were commanded to take up their begging bowls and to beg for scraps in the streets. Culturally, today, the pride that closes us off from asking or receiving is billed as an entirely positive thing. But in the spiritual traditions, the ability to erase pride – indeed selfhood – is praiseworthy. The Prophet described a mustard seed worth of pride as blameworthy. “What is a mustard seed worth of pride?” my shaikh asked me. “It is selfhood.” Naturally. this is not about greed for others’ possessions. Acquisitiveness is the opposite of this lack of pride.

I am trying to re-learn to take, but this is a difficult degree to obtain. The mastery of this art is a form of surrender. It is vulnerability, and yet it is emotional strength that is not shaken by give and take. I’m hoping I can regain that strength that I have somewhat lost along the way.

11 thoughts on “Breaking down fences that make dreadful neighbors”

  1. What a brilliant and touching reflection. I didn’t ask for help with my last pregnancy. As a result, I was angry and miserable. “. . . when you feel like you are a stranger, you start making others into strangers.” Absolutely true. Very wise. Tips for overcoming?

    In a way I feel this stems from the awareness of how much it can take for you to give–after you have kids, your time with your spouse and yourself is short, you count your minutes and stop sharing so willingly. Then expect that others are doing the same and don’t want to “burden” them, when really we all feel better when we help each other out. Community is key.

  2. thanks, Shawna. I absolutely think that there are times we’re unable to give. What’s amazing about the people who are helping me out is that they totally get that I’m low on personal resources. I’m not expected to give, in general. We all go through times when we will be the ones on the receiving end. At other times, we will be on the giving end. It comes and goes. We just have to accept that for ourselves and each other.

  3. This ‘individualism” is really a killer…it kills soul slowly…

    After few years you realize how dead you are inside

  4. Sometimes I feel the same thing. I have a friend who helps everyone out so much, and I find myself NOT asking him for help because I’m afraid he’ll use it against me one day. I don’t know if it’s just a part of growing older? I wouldn’t think twice about helping a friend in need, but as my own responsibilities have increased, I realize that they might just not have time for me, and maybe they’re not saying no? One friend, thought I didn’t value his friendship, and that I was ‘using him’ and taking him for granted. Maybe that also changed my views?

    If you figure out a way to over-come this fence, you need to post again, and share with all of us readers.

    Good luck🙂

  5. This is a subject close to my heart and I am going to write what I feel, I know I’m late but I have not been visiting your blogs for some time.
    When I was little (sagar) I felt myself that everybody “owed” me to give and I was not to respond (Big-headed, thought myself to be a great man–son of maulvi saheb, the way my father was held in high esteem both as a physician and as a leader)
    Moving to Punjab I still maintained that feeling and on top of that I was a unique student in the village adding more fuel to my fire of “self pride?”
    As I came to University level, most of the pride had flattened out but when my own personality started developing I found myself helping others and enjoying and never bothered about how and who gives “me” anything.
    In trying to understand the Darwinian theory I have realized that “altruism” is uniquely human characteristic and the best the closest animals to Homo sapiens (On the evolution scale) can come to, is Pseudoaltruistic behavior of some animals (of course the cultural and language factors are other unique features that make the human stand far apart- thus it, in my opinion “Darwin Saheb ka munh chirratay hain”)
    I found my older brother in the same way. That is not necessarily part of being a physician (although there may be some effect of this profession or vice versa).
    Yes every community (Like you have from continent to continent) I have been in I maintained the same behavior and received and gave freely not because of one thing or the other. So, when I give, I do it freely ( even lending or whatever), I just give not with the expectation that I’ll get back the same or in return for something. I may have lost some in this way but that would not influence my methodology or thinking.
    Culture
    Saying thank you was considered “western” (angraizi) influence in our eastern culture. Not that we do not feel obliged and yes there is giving and taking in all relationships new (like at marriage) and old (like siblings and cousins) in eastern culture but small things are not considered appropriate to mention. Family means very close ties therefore mentioning thank you becomes even disliked. In your heart of course you are thankful for the favor.
    That reminds me of a close friend (Allah us ki maghfirat karay) who was with me in a cold cold night, and his bed was closer to the switch (Lahore). I asked him to switch off and he did and in my razai I reflexly said, thank you
    He got up and switched it on again (He enjoyed teasing me vexing me). I had to get up and switch it off in the end.
    When I am invited by a friend I would go to my limits NOT to refuse and when I want to invite somebody I will go to my limits (I have my limitations now because I have to have spousal yes with it) to get the person otherwise would feel guilty if I cannot attend or I cannot invite.
    Your feeling is so natural but the intensity of your personality and your reflection and self-evaluation (your soofi tendencies or perhaps your personality is of that nature) sets my mind into thinking of the beauty of inner self. I wish to stop here but I have so much write about “self” and freewill both from medical scientific point of view and from religious or soofi point of view (No, baitee, I cannot be soofi, my personality is not cut out to be that way at all)

  6. You write beautifully. I was pleasantly surprised to learn you are from my hometown.

    I think its the ‘vilayat’ living that makes us stranger from basic human dependencies. I’m still unconvinced that there are any positives to it.

  7. First, I’m not sure that altruism is uniquely human. Wasn’t there a finding from Game Theory that showed that showed that the ‘team’ that offers to exchange advantages with others first, and only moves to competition and opposition after that has been denied, is the most successful? Synergy seems to be the best first strategy for many living systems. My feeling, as a former psychotherapist well-schooled in Western traditions of individual ‘development’, is that not all help is disinterested. Indeed, one could say that no help is disinterested, because it is a pleasure to help someone one cares about. In that sense, I suppose it is a courtesy towards friends offering help to accept such help, unless it really doesn’t help. I wonder if the sense of soul privacy, the veiled relationship with Essence, which seems (in my imagination, anyway) to be the blessing of certain styles of Islam, means that in such societies, people aren’t destroyed by others’ invasions of their lives and privacy. Judgment often comes along with help. Help often has its own agenda. If you have people who respect the privacy of your soul while still wanting to help you, you are truly blessed. A lot of people who seek psychotherapy are wounded by relationships that seem to offer help, but come at the expense of the soul’s sense of itself. In Western, secular, culture, we have had to invent the notion of the Self, the deeper self, the True self, the transpersonal self, the inviolable personal spirit etc etc to explain this difference in the order of being. This is because we need a sense of ultimate reverence, but the old systems that gave us the vocabulary to Name it have broken down, partly because of a fear on the part of liberal-minded folk that authoritative Naming can be used so very abusively if taken literally (I’m Only Trying to Help You – Without my Help you Risk: Damnation; Drowning in this Swimming Pool; Losing Maternal Approval; Defiling the Family Name or Whatever it is)… Personally, connectedness for me comes through the image of the Hearth, and the ancient and sacred Hospitalities that Dwell there. Uprootedness makes it harder to keep the hearth in its deepest sense, perhaps. I too have found that international moves make it harder to accept help, as if community needs a consistent sense or heart image of place to keep the flame alive.

  8. Wow! I really enjoy reading Comments, but sometimes I don’t get to them quickly. I agree that ‘vilayat’ living can damage some nerve-endings, and particularly your analysis, dreamburo, strikes many chords for me. I feel as if you are reading my mind, in fact🙂

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