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God Squad: Helping others does not mean being a martyr

Q: I’m wrestling with doing what’s good for me vs. what will help someone else. A year ago, when my mother’s only sibling’s husband died, I politely asked if there was anything I could do to help her. Since then, it’s been a nonstop whirlwind of doing for Auntie. I drive her to appointments (though she’s a better driver than me), clean, cook, paint, garden, take her to shops and restaurants, whatever her whim.

I only have so many days off work a week and she wants to claim them all. It’s getting too frustrating; she won’t take “I can’t” or “not today” for an answer. But the biggest problem with all this is that she’s insulting and hurtful during my visits. She tells me I’m fat, I don’t wear the right clothes, my hairstyle looks ethnic (whatever that means).

I’ve expressed my shock or hurt, but she says it’s her duty to let me know where I’m wrong. She also tries to speak ill of extended family, but I won’t engage her. These family members don’t visit her, and I think I know why.

Today, Auntie screamed at me for being 10 minutes late. When I left, I told her I was too hurt to come back and she seemed surprised. Can I stay away for my own peace of mind and self worth, or is it important to turn the other cheek and serve others?

I thought my efforts were honoring my own mother’s memory, but during one visit, Auntie informed me that she never liked my mother! I feel like a bad person for not wanting to go back, but I feel even worse when I’m with her. – D., Cyberspace

A: Wrestling is exactly the right word. Your poignant story and your clearheaded awareness of the personal cost of virtue is both moving and wrenching. Let me try to share with you what I’ve learned about the cost of doing good.

We can’t do good because it makes us feel good. We unfairly expect to have a warm, loving feeling inside after we help others, but often the good deeds we do are so wearying that they leave us more exhausted than exhilarated. Any parent can attest to the physical and emotional cost of raising children.

The only way to justify this massive expenditure of time and effort is to remember that the good we do is its own reward. This is the religious idea of serving God. We’re not looking for a payoff for our kindness. The Bible does not offer good feelings as a reward or incentive to righteousness. Goodness is a commandment, which means it’s a moral and religious duty, which means we must do it regardless of how it makes us feel.

Admonishing a friend about his/her immoral behavior, for example, won’t make you feel wonderful, but it’s an explicit commandment: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him.” (Leviticus 19:17). Many of us who’ve engaged in interventions with substance-abusing friends know how hard and yet how loving this commandment can be.

It may be time to decisively rebuke your aunt. You should be prepared to continue to help her because you can and because she’s in need, but unless she develops a spirit of gratitude, you should not continue. You can’t allow yourself to be abused.

The best way to begin is to write your aunt a letter explaining your feelings. Let her know that if she continues to insult you, you will not visit for a month. After the month is up, you should return, and if she’s not yet decided to be civilized, try to make other arrangements for professional care. The command to care is not a command for martyrdom.

All of us are or will be givers and takers of care in our lives. Both roles require spiritual preparation. As helpers, we must learn not to need applause. We are, after all, not performers of good, but servants of good. As those being helped we must learn to receive care with gratitude. It’s understandable that living in a diminished physical condition might make someone angry, but it’s utterly inappropriate to vent that anger on those trying to ease the discomfort.