The joint work teamwork of two men travelers help each other on top of a mountain climbing team, a beautiful sunset landscapeWhen should we stop saving people?

This was my year for grappling with my role as rescuer. The dictionary defines rescue as “to save from a dangerous or distressing situation,” and also “to keep from being lost or abandoned.” What happens when we are moved to do the former, but the latter is what’s required? Sometimes our feelings can’t tell the difference between endangered or lost, especially when family is concerned.


Research has shown that our evolutionary success is tied to first helping family members, then those we consider to be part of our tribe, so altruism is literally in our DNA. But how do we know when we’re helping for the wrong reasons or pushing too hard? On one hand we’re told to have “grit” and “never give up,” and on the other, that “rescuer syndrome” establishes an unproductive pattern of codependency.

This was a year when the problems of people I care about seemed intractable and insurmountable. Why did it seem that nothing changed when I soothed, listened, encouraged, advised, and consoled? Much of my days were spent driving, cooking, funding, and running endless errands. I bIMG_0146andaged, cleaned, wiped, repaired, moved, stacked and organized, and then fretted about how much worse it would have been had I just stayed home. Could it be that I was approaching this all wrong?

This year I tried to prevent my mother, who has Alzheimer’s, from falling, getting lost, forgetting my name, her name and address, my children’s names, and dinnertime. I kept her company when she was scared by imaginary circus clowns and a horde of children sitting on her bed. I moved her home three times, rushed her to the ER five times and mopped up countless accidents.

When she moved to assisted living, my living room piled up with boxes of her photos and books, her houseplants, and her samovar from Russia which was too precious to throw away. DidIMG_1214 I mention adopting her two cats, Misty and Binksy? They are adjusting quite well, and so is Mom. On her good days she smiles a lot, and those are the days we both feel saved.IMG_1216

This year I failed to save my daughter from failing college history. She dropped the course halfway through the semester and is now facing another fifteen weeks buried in the same textbook. Although she’s twenty, I still have the impulse to rescue her, but I’m learning.

Then there are my community college students, some of whom I failed to save from stress, from dropping out, or from returning to addiction and jail. But perhaps because I just listened, their burdens were lessened and we could laugh about some of life’s tougher moments.

I have a friend whIMG_0360o is a cancer survivor. Nothing I have experienced these fifty odd years will match his bravery and humor in facing his own mortality. He has become part of the tribe of chemo warriors with neuropathy and missing body parts to show their tribal affiliation. I am a friendly visitor from the land of the not-yet-sick, extending my hand, hugs, and encouragement. I don’t try to save him, but I do feel blessed every time we talk.

We become rescuers out of a sense of nobility, the idea that we are putting the needs of others over our own, or the compulsion to act because it is easier to do something than nothing, or perhaps out of guilt. All of this supposes that we have the power to fix others. I am learning that being with, rather than doing for, might be the best healer of all.

neuron on whiteRecent neurological research has shown that our brains are wired with mirror neurons that help us understand and empathize with others (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). Perhaps survival of the nicest, not the fittest, is a gift that evolution has hard wired into us from our earliest primate origins.

On my best days, I am moved by compassion, not pity. When I feel bruised by the pain of others, I remind myself it is the price of being alive and each day is a gift. 

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. – Muhammad Ali

One therapist I saw suggested leaning in and leaning out. When there is a crisis, you lean in, and when it passes, you lean out. Simple words, and quite helpful. We can’t maintain equilibrium if we are continually on high alert. We risk our health, our optimism, and the precious enjoyment of our connection to those whom we love. Nor can we permanently disengage, or we risk losing our humanity. It has been said that the first step to developing empathy for others and the earth is self-compassion. As the ancient prophet Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

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