Help vs. Rescue

I often find, in the midst of a crisis, that I want someone to swoop in and solve all of my problems. When I’m feeling badly, I don’t even quite know what is wrong, or how to solve it. I just want someone to come and make everything better, immediately and totally.

This is a natural desire. It is perfectly normal to want this to happen. However, it’s not a reasonable thing to expect. For one thing, when I have been on the other side of that equation, faced with someone who desperately wants to be rescued, I quickly feel overwhelmed and resentful. I burn out, and I’m not able to whole-heartedly give the help that someone needs.

I think it can be useful to think about the differences between getting help and being rescued.

Being rescued, in my mind, is something that people tend to feel an obligation to do. If someone’s house is on fire, there is a certain obligation to call the fire department, if nothing else. If someone is in dire need, people reach out to help them. They don’t consider their own needs as much, because the crisis another person is facing tends to take precedence. And there is nothing wrong, in a true emergency, with expecting to be rescued.

As I’m writing this, I keep thinking of a joke I’ve been told:

There is a town that is under a flood watch. The flood waters rise as a woman sits on her porch. Her neighbors come by in a boat, and offer to take her to higher ground. She refuses, saying, “God will take care of me.” The floods rise higher, and she moves up to the second floor. Another boat comes by, but the woman refuses to get into it, saying, “God will take care of me.” The flood waters continue to rise, and the woman is now on the roof of her house. Another boat comes by, the people in it urge the woman to get in so she can be safe. But she refuses, insisting that God will take care of her. The flood overtakes her, and she drowns. When she gets to heaven, she confronts God angrily, demanding to know why she wasn’t saved. God shakes his head, and says, “Lady, I sent you three boats!”

When I want to be rescued, I want some miraculous event–something that will feel like the heavens have parted, and I have truly been saved by a power outside of myself. I want it to come easily, without me having to take the risk of rejection. I want to be guaranteed that the help I need will be given.

Asking for help is hard. It means opening myself up to vulnerability. It means risking someone saying “no, I can’t help you with this right now.” Asking for help assertively means that the person I ask is able to set their own boundaries about the help they offer. This can be terrifying when I need help.

Another difference, in my mind, between help and rescue is that help should be asked for much earlier than rescue. I need to be able to be aware enough of my situation that I can ask for help before it is desperately needed. Rescue is about a crisis, and it tends to be needed immediately. It is much easier to see that a crisis is occurring, and people are more likely to intervene (at least at first) when they know someone is in a crisis situation.

The problem with relying on rescue to get our needs met is this: after a while, people get kind of inured to someone who is constantly in crisis. They pull back, or they stop reaching out. They begin to see the ways that the crisis could have been prevented, and they resent being expected to help this person who isn’t being proactive. If they send boats along repeatedly, they aren’t going to be willing to swoop in and save the person when the flood finally overtakes them.

But as a person needing help, help can feel much less satisfying than rescue. Help is less total, and relies on a lot more work from me. I have to be able to figure out what I need, and I have to be brave enough to ask for it, rather than waiting for someone to see my need and solve my problems for me.

In the end, though, the advantages of getting help far outweigh the advantages of being rescued. My support people are less likely to get burned out by giving help than by having to rescue me. And even though getting help can feel less satisfying at the time, I’ve found that in the long run, I feel much better about myself, and more confident in my ability to cope with the world when I am able to get help rather than waiting to be rescued.

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