One of the questions I get frequently from young people who have started to think differently about their bodies and their lives is “How can I help my friend (sibling, parent, lover, etc.) who is still really hurting?” High school and college-aged students all have friends who are in unhealthy relationships, struggling with depression or addictions, fighting a dreadful eating disorder. When these young people get inspired by a class or a book, when they begin their own journey of transformation, they want to be evangelicals for the cause. Many have missionary hearts, longing to spread the good news of self-acceptance and empowerment far and wide. I encourage this in my classes, often using the term “Great Commission” to refer not to winning the world for Christ, but to living out one’s egalitarian and inclusive values in a way that inspires others.
But as we all find sooner or later (usually sooner), there are friends and loved ones who don’t want to hear what we have to say. Or perhaps they do want to hear it, but they lack the courage (or more likely, the resources) to extricate themselves from the painful circumstances that they’re in. Preaching at someone who’s “stuck” doesn’t do a lot of good — indeed, it tends to be counterproductive. Rather, we help best through two things: being a role model for the kind of change we want to see, and by accepting a role as a witness rather than a rescuer. The first of these is fairly universal advice, though it bears repeating. The second point is equally important, however.
Most of us have a hard time figuring out who we are and who we aren’t capable of helping. We raise our daughters to be veritable Florence Nightingales, caring for their dollies and, later, their pets. Less overtly, we raise many of our sons to be “knights in shining armor” who can rescue damsels in distress. This has some stereotypical manifestations: the fourteen year-old girl who becomes involved in the animal rights movement and her twin brother who plays “Call of Duty” all day long are both following a very old and gendered script that plays on this tremendous desire to rescue, to save, to be a hero. (I can’t get over the title “Call of Duty” for a video game. Don’t video games call people away from their duties? Isn’t it delightful to have recreation recast as responsibility?)
It’s true that the animals of the world need our help, as do many others. But when faced with the sheer overwhelm of seemingly intractable social problems, a lot of young people — especially but not exclusively women — start to shift that desire to rescue towards something, or someone, more immediate. Trying to change a friend or a boyfriend seems to have a greater chance of success, they imagine. (The reverse is actually true. It’s easier to get legislation passed than it is to solve another adult’s problems for them.) This isn’t just the root of the “bad boy” or “manic pixie girl” syndromes so well known in our culture — it’s the source of tremendous frustration and pain in a wide variety of relationships.
You can’t be an advocate for real change if you have a messiah complex. Too often, the rescuer rescues less out of altruism and more out of a frantic desire to feel worthy. The person you’re trying to save almost always catches on to this, and becomes resentful. The rescuer then charges ingratitude, and either moves on to a more promising target or chooses to suffer in wasted and tiresome martyrdom. This is not activism — this is parasitism masquerading as love.
The alternative, of course, is to embrace the role of the witness. The witness gives information; the witness offers support, but the witness doesn’t try to do for another what that other must do for herself or himself. The witness doesn’t lead the proverbial horse to water, but notes that if the horse is feeling thirsty, a nearby trough is available. The witness may even amble over to the trough alongside the horse, but won’t beg the horse to dip its head into the water. A witness owns his or her own decision to stay and participate in another person’s life. A witness doesn’t buy the flattering line that he or she is all that stands between a loved one and oblivion. But he or she is there, watching, ready to talk — or to point the way when asked.
I challenge my students to ask themselves: am I a rescuer or a witness? Am I modeling in my own life what I want for others, or am I distracting myself from my own pain by focusing on someone who seems even worse off than me? To be part of the solution, rather than just a different manifestation of the problem, requires that we ask and answer these questions.