A house was going up in flames. All that the firefighters could do was keep it from spreading to neighboring structures.
Out on the sidewalk, I attempted to console the people who were watching their home and possessions burn. I made my best face of pained concern, and said some very nice, very canned words of comfort.
One of them fished in his pocket and said, “I have a few bucks on me. There’s a 7/11 on the corner – let me buy you a cup of coffee.”
“I, uh, no, that’s OK,” said my mouth while my mind huffed, “Hey, I’m here to help them, after all. Am I not the one in the position of strength and power and they the weak and helpless?”
“No, really, let me get you a coffee.” The man was assertive, almost angry.
I gave in. As he jogged off to the corner store, I was blessed with a flash of understanding. With his house and property going up in smoke, and only a bunch of question marks ahead of him, that guy had the power to dig out some change and buy coffee for a stranger. He maintained his strength and dignity there on that little square of sidewalk.
When it comes to the “hierarchy of needs” described by psychologist Abraham Maslow, those of us who are care givers tend to focus on the three lowest levels – survival, safety and belonging.
We take care of our loved ones’ physical necessities, try to keep the place clean, and try to stay affectionate. These are essential. But we can become trapped in an ego pleasing role of strong provider, casting those in our care as weak and helpless.
The higher needs, according to Maslow, include the ability to achieve goals and to stretch toward one’s unique potential. Like buying a cup of coffee for a stranger and claiming one’s place as a generous host, even in the midst of catastrophic loss.
We need to let those in our care do for us in ways that are natural for them. We need to accept their gestures of love and support, and even learn to ask them for help that they can realistically provide. We have to watch out for allowing them to express only needs, which feed our egos and drain our energy at the same time, and give them space to show off their strengths and gifts as well.