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Helplessness, Learned Dependency and the Art of Compassion

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Helplessness, Learned Dependency and the Art of Compassion

A few years ago, an older man in a wheelchair approached my husband, granddaughter and me as we walked across the street toward a playground. He started out as if he were going to introduce himself as a neighbor, very happy and outgoing, “Hi, are you folks looking at that house?” We had been. Then he shifted gears. “I’m a diabetic, and I don’t have any food in my house. Could you spare a few dollars?”

I suppose I should have felt compassion for this man. We’ll call him “Ned.” Instead, that twinge of compassion quickly dissipated, and I felt suspicion instead.

I noticed my gut feeling: that he was not as nice as he acted. For some reason, I didn’t believe he needed that wheelchair. I didn’t believe he didn’t have any food in his “house.” I didn’t even believe he had a house. I believed he wanted a drink, and had refined this strategy to tug at people’s heartstrings, and, ultimately, their purse-strings. Then, I felt angry that he approached us under false pretense–it felt like a bait and switch tactic. Overall, though, knowing my mix of emotions was just that–a mix of emotions–I wondered what the real story behind this man was.

Perhaps anger and gut feelings such as these don’t seem to mesh with this blog, “Heart to Heart in a Shielded World.” Certainly they don’t seem congruent with my earlier post on Compassion.  Do you relate a bit, though? Do you have gut feelings and quick reactions to things like this?

Maybe you’re upset with me right now. After all, here I am, a writer whose blog is all about heart. . . a therapist whose profession is all about promoting personal worth, function and independence. . . a woman who professes genuine faith and authentic love for people. Hold on, though.

Don’t discard me as a total hypocrite too soon.

I’m also a woman who seeks to balance intellect with heart. I’m also a woman who grew up with men not being who they professed to be.  I’m also a woman on an authentic journey of becoming, not one who has already arrived.

Stay with me for a little back-story, and then you’ll see where we’re going with this post.

As a teen, I dreamt we would change the world with “love, sweet love.” Like the old commercial, we’d “buy the world a coke,  and keep it company.”  I turned my back on prosperity preachers and party animals, who reverted to a different sort of coke in the 80’s, while I lived thriftily and dedicated myself to helping people with addictions recover their lives and find faith, hope and love. Then, I came to a point where, with education and a sensibly-sized student debt, I changed careers. As an occupational therapist, I brought practical strategies to folks with impairments who want independence.

When I felt those negative things toward the man in the wheelchair that day, I surprised myself. I soon began to ask myself some questions. The first question flashed across my mind:

“Have you let your original love fade into cynicism and selfishness?”

Then, another question paraded its way across the screen in my mind:

“Was he an angel, a test to see if I’d entertain angels unaware?”

Still more questions emerged: “What really is his problem, and what really is his need?,” and, last, but not least, “What should we do?” I pondered these questions a while. From that experience, this post emerged.

(Reader, this means beware: long post ahead!).

Helplessness, learned dependency and the art of compassion: its title flowed from my fingers as if the post had a life of its own.  I named it before I knew what I was going to say.

Helplessness and Learned Dependency

There is something about helplessness that moves us.  A newborn baby. An abandoned puppy. An orphan in a third-world country. When we hear the term helplessness, our mental images usually involve young life, not adults–certainly not adult men. Men are supposed to be tough. Men are supposed to take care of women and children, as protectors, providers. Right? Those beliefs, rooted in ancestral memories, and the facts of body composition, are not necessarily reality. In fact, more male children are born with disabilities than female. There are plenty of men who actually are helpless, in many ways. Yet somehow, we expect more from men; even men with impairments.

What does it mean to be helpless? It’s not a term we like these days. Current technology enables capacity for independent functioning as never before. Tongue movements can activate a switch to use augmentative speech devices, manage home electronics, lock doors and turn on lights. Electrodes placed on the head can let the wearer move the cursor on a computer by thinking it there. Power wheelchairs can lift a rider to standing position, climb stairs, and respond to torso movements with delicate balancing responses. It would seem, then, that being “dependent” or “helpless” is a thing of the past. Yet few have the means to own and maintain this sort of technology. Even if they did, there is more to this whole dependency thing than we realize.

When it comes to concepts like helplessness or dependence, our brains get hard-wired early in life. Modern brain science teaches us there are optimal periods in brain development for certain skills, and if, for any reason, we experience significant failure, our brains learn that we cannot. Our brains learn what works, what does not, and it moves on.

For example, a newborn is hungry, but cannot reach mommy, or speak. Discomfort leads to crying. Crying tends to result in baby being picked up and fed. Voila! Hunger dissipates. Problem solved: When I feel hungry, cry. It’s as simple as cause and effect, yet as complex as neuroscience. The developing brain moves on, and focuses on things like trying to hold his head up, reaching the dangling toy, and rolling over. Later, he learns he can say, “Baba,” and mommy gives him milk. Much later, he finds he can go get his own drink. If, at any point along this continuum, baby has impaired physical or language skills, efforts toward greater independence fail. Without some alternate means to facilitate independence, the brain settles into reliance on what works: maybe all the back to crying. Neural pathways become firmly established at this point, and baby has learned to be dependent. This is called learned dependency.

Hard-wiring like this happens all  the time in our brains. We aren’t particularly aware of it when it happens. To us, it just seems that we’ve figured out how things work, and we move on to learn something else. Learned dependency can be a problem for anyone, whether or not they have a physical or mental impairment.

Here’s an example: I  used to work in a rehab hospital, where clients came to regain skills after stroke, surgery, and such. My job included going into patients’ rooms in the morning to help them problem-solve new ways to do daily tasks such as dressing and hygiene. There was one gentleman who refused to participate. At first I thought he was just not up to it yet, but after a few days, he explained that he never dresses himself. “That is women’s work,” he stated emphatically. I inquired further, and spoke with his family, and found it was true; in their culture, the woman dressed the man. This man had been completely able to dress himself, but had learned early on, and lived with the reinforcement, that he was dependent on a woman.

So, now let’s revisit “Ned,” and see if we can distinguish between actual helplessness and learned dependency. The man in the wheelchair: Was he helpless? Did he learn dependence? He was independent enough to propel his wheelchair down the road. He was independent enough to offer a friendly greeting, a smile and eye contact. He was able to verbally ask for help. All of this was easy to see. What wasn’t easy to see was why he didn’t have food in his house. He said, “I’m a diabetic and I don’t have any food in my house. Can you spare me a few dollars?” Is there something about being diabetic that makes a person more prone to run out of food and money? If not, why did he feel it was important to preface his plea with that information? Did he presume we would think that without food, he will go into a diabetic coma? He seemed to emphasize that he had a house, as if trying to prevent us from disregarding him as a homeless person. If he had a house, had he no phone? Certainly there are people and organizations he could call, like the local food bank, before heading out to beg from strangers. What about his neighbors, his buddies? The pieces don’t fit. To me, “Ned” is strongly suspect for learned dependency, not helplessness. Somewhere along the way, he learned that he didn’t have to make his budget stretch to keep food on the shelf. He learned that he could get handouts with a little work and a few little tricks.

This is the main reason my gut feeling was that “Ned” was not being honest. After years of working in addictions and years working with people who have disabilities but want independence, I have a fairly reliable sense of who can do something, who cannot, and what a person needs to be able to do it.

Does “Ned” need help? What sort of help does he need? Does he need a few bucks to put food in his cupboard? Does he need someone to bring food instead of money?  Does he need much more than this? Does he need help unlearning his learned dependency?  Can hard-wired brains be rewired? If so, what does it take? If we gave him a few bucks, would we reinforce his learned dependency? How do we determine the best way to help “Ned?”

The Art of Compassion

Compassion is more than an empathetic feeling. Compasson takes action; well-considered, planned action.

Some acts of compassion are fairly easy to plan. For example, you’re walking in the mall and see a toddler standing alone, crying. The child clearly is helpless, and in danger. It doesn’t take much to decide to put on your best comforting style and get the little one to the nearest store register or security guard, so announcements can be broadcast to find the parent who is most likely frantically searching for their child.

Others, like in “Ned’s” example, are not so easy. Is the problem too complex to fix in the twenty seconds we need to make a decision? If so, we may find ourselves hesitating, avoiding it and moving on. In essence, we find ourselves “helpless” to help. Or, maybe we feel too uncomfortable ignoring the plea, and give a little something before we move on. Either way, the problem remains. What do we do when true compassion takes well-considered, planned action, and the problem is complex?

This is where compassion becomes an art.

Creative, unique and beautiful, acts of compassion can explode into works of art. Consider the late Audrey Hepburn’s work as ambassador for UNICEF. A beautiful, glamorous Hollywood actress, she had no need to work at all. Yet she spent the last several years of her life visiting the world’s  starving children, and, in so doing, brought international exposure to their plight and made those children real to us. A dentist and his rotary club began a small venture to bring pure water to El Salvadore back in 1994. Today their work is international and growing exponentially. Along with providing sustainable filters for each home, they also provide education on hygiene, foodsafety, and create jobs where work was unavailable. Visit their website to see the work of art expand before your eyes. 

Having said all of this, I wonder about you, my readers.

What do you think should have been done about Ned?

What do you think when you meet Ned?

What do you do?

In what ways have you learned helplessness or dependency?

Thanks for reading and sharing your hearts.

Joan T Warren