I’ve been seeing that Mister Rogers quote pop up a lot lately. You know the one. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
I’ve worked alongside a lot of helpers over the past several years, and I consider myself one as well. I’ve known compassionate people who go to protests, write letters to politicians, and debate with stubborn family members. They work their schedules around their clients, become the “go-to” person when people are in pain, and answer the phone after hours. They’re the ones who are first to act, first to take responsibility, and first to make the difficult decision.
Even the uber-flawed Nurse Jackie (if you haven’t checked out this addictive--pun intended--show on Netflix yet, do it) will put herself in uncomfortable or compromising situations so she can be helpful to her patients. Helpers aren’t perfect, but they do have a unique talent for seeing where the pain lies and then accessing the good inside themselves to do something about it.
I respect that. And that’s what helpers do: they aren’t afraid to be a bit uncomfortable for the sake of the greater good. They aren’t afraid to go where it’s dark, messy, sad, conflicted. All for the purpose of making life a little bit better for other people. I mean, angels on earth, right?
And yet… and yet. As a self-identified helper, I’ve found myself in situations that were SO uncomfortable that I wondered if it was even worth it to stay.
I’m afraid that the tolerance for discomfort, which is such a necessity in order to really understand and sit with raw human suffering, has become a skill that I’ve learned too well.
I’ve learned that if working for a cause becomes SO uncomfortable that it’s affecting my work and my joy, it’s probably time to let it go. I take that function-impeding discomfort as important information: I should probably leave it for someone else, who can do it much more effectively and joyfully than me. Because maybe that thing, that situation, isn’t for me to rebuild. Maybe that person isn’t for me to support. Maybe this is not the type of healer I’m meant to be.
Maybe the thing I need to rebuild, support, or heal right now is… me. So I’ll excuse myself in order to make space for those who actually have the gifts and calling to do the work—because I sure as hell don’t.
It might be hard to let go of that good intention (bless your heart), but hope and optimism can easily turn to delusion if you don’t know when to quit. Some wars, some traumas, some relationships, some life trajectories cannot be “fixed”. Not right now. Not by you. Not in this way. Sometimes, the most productive thing to do in the moment is to stop pushing. Let what needs to happen, happen. Even if it’s ugly.
I keep hearing about the virtue in “sucking it up” and “sticking it out”—especially when doing important work in the world. Because hey, someone needs to do it. And if it’s important, you know it’s gonna be hard. But I’m not talking about the challenge of the daily grind.
I’m talking about that nauseous, despair-riddled feeling you get when you know in your gut that you’re pouring time and energy into something that’s not your true calling. I’m talking about that feeling of suffering that creeps up when all you want to do is help, but something about the work reeks of that square-peg-round-hole vibe. And no matter how much you try, you can’t make yourself into a round peg.
Maybe you're a highly sensitive person like me, and certain situations simply rub your nervous system in the wrong way, to the point where your body has had enough.
I believe that humans aren’t meant to suffer. Yes, there will be suffering, but are we meant to suffer? Is that what we’re here for? Mmmmm I don’t think so.
So if you start suffering in your work, I’d interpret it as this:
The world needs you somewhere else.
Don’t worry, there will be someone else to fill your shoes when you go. You are not the end-all-be-all of helpers for this person, this cause, or this community. You are not God, you are not all-powerful, so stop thinking that you (and only you) are responsible for this work that you’re square-pegging.
Mister Rogers’ mama was right: there are always helpers, and helpers are always needed.
But I’ll tack on a lil qualifier for ya: helpers don’t just go where people need help; helpers go where their specific talents are needed. We are not all meant to educate young minds, or to cure cancer, or to start non-profits. We may want to do these things, but they might not be for us, and we might not be for them.
Trust that you were given very specific gifts and have a unique voice that needs to be heard by people somewhere else. You’re meant to be in a very specific place right now… even if it’s not here.
So find it. Go there. Go where you--YOU, specifically--are needed.