Abandoning altruism...

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and flavors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing -- the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

Needy... it's a word that, in our generation, has taken on very distinctly negative connotations. Often, when we refer to someone else as being needy, it is a statement riddled with detachment verging on disdain.

...I can't handle him...

She drives me nuts...

...He's just too much for me

Once we've identified someone else as being needy, it's usually only a matter of time before we begin to detach, to sever these relationships between the C1 and C2 vertebrae. We pull away. We lie. We hide. Or at least that has been my personal tendency. What about you?

During my summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Rush, halfway through the program, one of my cohort members shared his experience of me thus far. One statement he made has stuck with me ever since: I sometimes fear that perhaps your desire to provide care for others is rooted in your own sense of not feeling cared for. I didn't quite know what he meant (although I knew it was a completely true statement). Why was he afraid of this? What was wrong with this tendency?

In much of his writing, Henri Nouwen speaks of the need for balance between having others meet our needs, having God meet them, and meeting them ourselves. The reality is this: we are all needyIf we believe in the notion of being made in the image of God, and if we truly believe that at God's core, God is a relational being whose existence is rooted in God's relationship between God, Son, and Spirit (at least in a Christian, Trinitarian sense), then it only makes sense that we as humans have an inherent, intrinsic need for others—this hunger to love and be loved, to care and feel cared for, to give and receive. Healthy relationships are comprised of balance.

Every time you reject yourself, you idealize others. You want to be with those whom you consider better, stronger, and more intelligent, more gifted than yourself. Thus you make yourself emotionally dependent, leading others to feel unable to fulfill your expectations and causing them to withdraw from you — Henri Nouwen, Inner Voice of Love

Okay, so maybe he and I would differ on some things. That's okay. I imagine that, were I to meet and build a friendship with Nouwen, we'd probably end up having pretty good boundaries. I'd need him, and he would need me.

Speaking of need, back to my earlier story. Just yesterday, I interviewed for a chaplain resident position with the Cleveland Clinic. I shared the above encounter with my interviewer, and her response was, "And?!?! So what?!?!" She emphasized that we all have needs, even those of us in the helping, caring, and service professions, and to deny the role of our own need in our vocation would be to embrace deceit and inauthenticity.

The truth is: yes, I provide care often because it makes me feel cared for, appreciated, and trusted. I'm not the first person to experience, nor will I be the last. I just happen to be honest about it.My goal though is to balance my own neediness with my sense of responsibility to my patients and any for whom I provide care. In other words, for me and many others, there is no such thing as true altruism. As far as I am concerned, the only altruistic act committed in human history was the voluntary self-sacrifice of Jesus. Beyond that, any acts of pure altruism have been, well, grossly exaggerated.

So if you're like me and lean more towards neediness than you do self-sufficiency (read: isolation), then know you aren't alone. It's alright to have needs and to turn to others to meet them. But for those of us in the helping professions, there is one item of importance not to be ignored (okay, maybe two): balance and self-awareness. Know who you are, where you're at, and what you need. Beyond that, go out there, get your hands and heart dirty, and love with abandon.