Wednesday, December 06, 2006

the caretaker

I've been thinking lately about another theme that comes up in my job from time to time. It's usually from those in some sort of crisis or another, and the story usually goes something like: when I met my wife/husband/partner, they seemed great, but then they started drinking. And now they yell and scream, threaten suicide if I were ever to leave them, even get aggressive.

These individuals typically were the caretakers growing up, kids who were in charge of taking care of someone's feelings -- or who tried desparately to "make everything OK." And often the current difficulty is a perpetuation of that pattern: of trying to manage things for someone, unwittingly enabling the negative behavior.

The interesting thing is that my job becomes, in part, telling them that they're right to be upset. That their pain and discomfort is telling them something -- that they can't (and shouldn't) try to be responsible for their partner's anger or drinking or aggression. That they have right to expect that their partner step up to the plate, be responsible for themselves, be more of a full partner emotionally.

It's always interesting and somewhat sad when I come across people in these kinds of situations, in part because those in the "caregiver" role are almost always some of the nicest, kindest, most decent folk you could ever want to meet.

In a sense, they're too nice. I sometimes wonder if my advice to them might come across as asking them to be selfish, to be mean. Sometimes I get this look from them, like they're saying "...whaddya mean 'turn the other cheek' isn't always for the best?"

My hope for them is that they can learn to to balance their love for others with a respect for themselves, that they can learn "love" doesn't always mean giving someone what they want. I pray that they come to see how "love" in its deepest sense can only happen when they're being genuine and real, open and honest about how they really feel, rather than hiding behind some wall of "being nice."


lorinda said...

Thanks for this amazing post. I needed it, and I'm going to share it with a friend.

Magdalene6127 said...

Nice is overrated. Jesus never said "Be nice." He said "Love one another," and sometimes love is hard. Love challenges us, love demands that we step up, as you said, to the plate to be as fully present as we can. People whose addictions are active are not full partners, and your advice is not advice to be mean, it is advice to give love. Not sentimental greeting card love; real love. Well done, Steve.

steve westby said...


thank you for your kind words. I'm glad if the post was meaningful to you.


YES! I think being "nice" can be a way of avoidance, a polite facade that covers up what's really going on. No wonder Jesus never said "aw, come on, be nice"! Thank goodness he challenged and encouraged us with the far more meaningful command to love.

more cows than people said...

Steve, thank you for bringing more reflections from your work to us. I find them very valuable. I have been visiting with a couple of caretakers this week who struggle with resentments that are all too familiar to me.

Thanks, Mags, as well, for your reflections on love verses being nice. Reminded of little red from Into the Woods "And nice is different from good!"

Pastor Peters said...

Well, crap Steve. Doesn't that just paint a picture of my ministry?

But then again, my favorite mantra through seminary (which Magdalene6127 reflects upon) was: Jesus said to love them. But, I don't have to like them. It is about being nice in some way, but that doesn't mean I have to like it anymore than anyone else.

steve said...

more cows,

I'm delighted if you find my reflections about my work helpful to you. I actually think our professions are quite similar in a lot of ways.

pastor peters,

Actually, I don't think it paints a negative picture of your ministry at all. In fact, I should think quite the opposite. From what I can tell from your blog, you strive to go beyond simply being "nice" to truly showing love. Blessings to you.