On September 9, NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a story about a woman who wanted to be a nurse and the challenges she was facing to become one. The story ended with the host saying that this woman was “determined to make a career out of helping people.” This triggered a realization that I am determined not to be ashamed of:
I don’t want to make a career out of helping people.
I was socialized to believe that I should want to help people; that selflessness is the ultimate virtue. This, coupled with a simultaneous cautioning against pursuing an artistic career, directed me to career paths where I could Make a Difference. Change the world! Save society. Do Good.
It has taken me many years to realize that I don’t, as a rule, want to help people. Not directly, anyway. I am just now beginning to come to terms with this. It goes against everything I’ve always believed about what it means to be a good person. I always assumed that Helping People was the position I should desire within society’s Division of Labor. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a woman, and women in our society are conditioned to be selfless. I’m not going to unpack that in depth here.
It is wonderful that we have people like the woman in the ATC story, who genuinely want to help people and make it their life’s work. Thank you nurses, fire fighters, social workers…the list goes on and on. It is necessary for a society to have people whose job it is to help people directly. It is also necessary for society to have people who do other things.Until a few months ago, I thought I belonged in the first category. It turns out, my personality makes constantly helping people–being intimately acquainted with and implicated in their business–difficult to the point of being intolerable.
Part of it is that I eventually experience most service-oriented jobs as elaborate customer service rituals. Customer service has tried to crush my soul multiple times, and its latest attempt was disguised as a philanthropic, career-oriented, society-changing opportunity. But juggling requests, ideas, demands, and egos with diplomacy is not something I can sustain without turning into Grumpy Rachel. (And no one wants to hire her.)
I should clarify something before charging ahead: most of the time, I do enjoy helping people I love (family & friends, even the occasional acquaintance). But let’s be honest about that last category of person. Helping acquaintances is often wrapped up in a selfish impulse, to further or maintain a relationship that’s important to me. The point is I like helping people when I know them. What I have discovered I don’t like is helping people occupationally.
For a while, I thought I did. After graduate school didn’t lead to further graduate school, I slunk back home and started volunteering for a few local non-profits. I got involved in a community effort to start a food co-op. This felt good. I was helping to change the world, one piece at a time. Ah-ha! Theory into Practice! Non-profits were how I would help make the world a better place! For a while, I basked in the glow of personal fulfillment and career-building. It was bliss, getting to know people and making them smile and figuring out how to improve their lives.
…Until the creeping realization that all this was more akin to the dreaded customer service jobs I’d left behind than I’d thought. Once I made that connection, I couldn’t not experience things in that oppressive paradigm. It exhausted me to the point of neglecting my hobbies (sorry, lindy hop and this blog) all this caring about the lives of strangers/customers/clients–whoever was at the other end of the interaction. Why are you trying to make this my problem? I would find myself thinking bitterly. Oh, right. Because it’s my job to fix your problem.
That cannot be my job. Trying to make myself want to help people is a disservice to both society and myself. Why fake it and feel bitter about doing so when there are folks who actually want to help these strangers? (For the record, I don’t understand those folks even though I convinced myself I was one of them, but I remain grateful they exist.) I’m standing–okay, sitting–in everyone’s way.
So I’m transitioning from a career in customer/client services to a hodgepodge of things that don’t require me to help people directly. Help them by hanging out with their dog? Sure! Help them by writing something that might make them smile? I’m down for that!
Contemplating a career that’s more “artistic” is something my brain pushes against. It’s had three decades to train itself that art isn’t a Serious Career. Not for me. Even when I was encouraged by instructors to pursue artistic expression all those years ago, I always assumed music and writing were my hobbies and nothing more. I never allowed myself to consider them as viable options for making a living–or part of a living. But this latest failure to launch a career in Helping People has me rethinking what I’m suited for. Besides, if other people are out there making a go of it as artists of one sort or another, why not me? Why not try?
I’ve got a lot of work to do to accept this truth about myself. That I’m not the selfless martyr I was socialized to believe I should want to be. That it’s okay to put more energy into being there for people I already care about, rather than people I’m paid to help. I need to find ways to contribute to society that don’t ask me to bear the burdens of others. I am not equal to that task, and I’m finally ready to admit it.
4 responses to “Self-Awareness, Selfishness, and (No) Shame: Finding a Place in Society”
First, congratulations. Second, fuck choosing an occupation–no matter how much good it might do–out of guilt. Third, (and this may be snarky, selfish, rationalizing me talking–which I’m okay with because we’re on good terms now) I don’t believe that all the people in helping professions really do want to help people or that all the people in helping professions are necessarily good at helping people. And If I were mean I could offer a list of former therapists/teachers I’ve known as proof. Fourth, and this is my main point, I believe the best way for each of us to do good in the world is by being the best version of that thing that no one else can be: ourselves. Fifth, in case you couldn’t tell, I love everything you say here. And finally, isn’t the first rule of lindy hop that nobody talks about lindy hop?
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Thanks for the support. I agree that not everyone in traditionally “altruistc” occupations are necessarily themselves selfless…how could they be? People choose or find themselves in careers for all sorts of reasons. Really like your 4th point. As for your 5th point, I have nothing clever to offer as rebuttal.
Thanks for being so honest. Good luck as you forge your career!
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Thank you, Jennifer!