Do you remember that time I had a hard-ass nun for a professor?

Of course you don’t. But I do. How could I forget? She taught history and scolded with her index finger. Habits aside, she was the nightmare you envision in Catholic grade school. Only, I didn’t go to Catholic grade school, so this particular joy was saved for me until graduate school.

Fortunately, however, I was old enough at the time to appreciate (after long discernment) the wisdom and knowledge she was working to impart. In sum, her academic take on history was this: “I don’t care what you think about what happened. I care about what the people in the moment thought and how it motivated their actions.” A difficult hurdle for an English major to jump, simply because analysis of any literary text I had touched before started with me.

Prof. Nun Lady changed that.

And, dare I say, her hardline approach to history has seeped into the fabric of my personal life. It got me thinking on my walk to work this morning, and a revelation hit that might just be worthy of sharing.

***

2012 has been a shitty year for me. I say that acknowledging in the subtext the many who have helped me move forward. I don’t imagine all of 2012 will be shitty, but the first few weeks leave something to be desired. In that time, I have been down and out in more ways than one and needed–absolutely needed–the loving intervention of friends to help me through. The truth is, the confusion and pain of everything made it difficult to know what steps to take. Nonetheless, they had my best interests at heart, and have carried me to this point and will carry me onward. For that I am eternally grateful.

Recent reflections on these chaotic weeks had me thinking about what it means to help someone else. I sometimes think, in this case, ignorance is bliss; there is a built-in piece of each of us that desires to help those in need and, when the opportunity arises and we grab it, there is satisfaction for both people. The giver is satisfied that they have sustained another, or lifted another up. The receiver is grateful for the help that was freely offered.

But who lives in complete blissful ignorance? We know that when we give we feel good about ourselves. Because of this, our motivation to help sometimes comes out of a desire to be self-satisfied rather than to genuinely help another person. Does that mean we don’t actually care? Not at all. But it does mean that motivations are often muddy, rarely pure. We may care about somebody and want them to be well, happy, and taken care of, but we may also know (subconsciously), that any action taken to help that person is be self-fulfilling. Is that genuine help?

I began this reflection with a recollection of my days with Prof. Nun Lady because her injunction in academia rings true in social circles as well. When we help someone, we shouldn’t be coming at the situation entirely from our perspective. We may think we know what the best help looks like, or what exactly we want to give, but that doesn’t mean it is what the other person needs or wants. And isn’t that the most important? Isn’t that why we reach out to begin with? Because there’s a part of us that cares for the other person and wants them to be well, whatever that means to them?

And yet, we sometimes (often?) give so as to feel proud of ourselves. And in those times, I wonder if it isn’t better that we hadn’t helped at all.

But self-satisfaction is only one way the motivation to help is tainted. I have found that control is another insidious guide for us, particularly when we feel threatened by someone or find them to be in competition with us. It is evidently true that when someone needs help, they are vulnerable in one way or another. If we calculate our help so that it directs a person’s actions, decisions, or life path, we are, in essence, manipulating them. Sure, on the surface it appears as selfless aid. But is that all?

The question for me is: is it possible–even once in a lifetime–to give wholly, purely out of love and care and nothing else? I would certainly like to say that is true, but as I look at my past, I wonder at the workings of my mind and heart when my hand was offered in aid. Please don’t misunderstand–I’m not calling us innately bad or evil. I’m merely trying to be honest about another facet of our humanity. We are complex creatures with powerful intellects and many-layered emotions. It almost stands to reason that our motivations are constantly under the influence of dozens of thoughts, feelings, and circumstances.

The take away, I guess, is much the same as it was for my History of the Church course in graduate school. It wasn’t so much that Prof. Nun Lady wanted me to dive so deeply into the psyches of church figures dead and buried that I could extract their precise thoughts. That would clearly be a waste of time. It was simply that she wanted to create a habit: Think about where others come from. Not their lineage or objective history, but what they might have felt and thought in their life, surrounded by a unique battery of people and events.

Is it any different for our lives, day to day? I remember one Christmas I received a present from a friend I barely knew. They were so overjoyed to give me the gift, that I was quite taken aback. When I opened it, I found that it was a book of no particular significance to me. But it was one of their favorites, signed by the author. Was the gift not a genuine act of care and giving? Indeed it was. But there was a piece missing, perhaps–the moment in which that friend asked herself what I would want for Christmas.

In the spirit of honesty, I have a rather predictable confession to make: I do the same thing every day. I give to be satisfied sometimes, and even if it is not my only motivation, it often lurks below the surface. I only hope, having put this finally together in my mind, that I can give more fully in my life as I grow older, being aware of my own desires to control and serve the self. I think the greatest models of that unadulterated love have come to me recently–when I was the most vulnerable, the most weak, the most weary.

Thank you friends, for helping me realize what it truly means to help.