Today, I’m reminded that there’s no real difference between a drunk old man and a woman that stays with her abusive partner. Both need compassion, not judgement.
I saw an elderly man crouching down against the wall, his head in his hands. Shoppers made careful arcs across the pavement, studying him from the corner of their eyes as they conscientiously examined storefronts and their own shoelaces. A middle-aged woman carrying a high-street shopping bag rolled her eyes at me as I approached.
The man smelled strongly of alcohol. He couldn’t stand up. He was slurring his words so badly that I hadn’t a clue what he was trying to say.
There’s no such thing as ‘the deserving needy’
It crossed my mind that he was rip-roaring drunk. And, generally speaking, as a society we mostly leave drunks alone to get on with it. In the ‘Just World’ hypothesis, people get what they deserve (or so we like to think!). As I bent over him, I flashed-back to my studies in psychology, where I learned that:
- a person is less likely to be helped if we think they brought it on themselves
- we’re less likely to help if there are others around.
As I waited for the ambulance to arrive, I realised that it didn’t matter if this man’s condition was self-inflicted, or whether he was the unfortunate victim of a stroke. I had no idea what his life was like, or why he made the choices that he did. Or even, if he had choices at all. I wasn’t an old-time philanthropist with showy altruism and pronouncements on ‘the deserving poor’.
Who was I to make the call about whether this man deserved help, or should instead be left shivering on the ground? As a woman that stayed with an abusive man, was there any real difference between us?
The people who helped me away from abuse’s brick wall
I remembered, for the scores of people who turned a blind eye and abandoned me to my ‘deserved fate’, there were other big-hearts who tried to help me up. My beloved grandmother, who handed me a cutting on gaslighting. The friend of my (now) ex’s, who offered to ‘sort him out’ for me. A complete stranger on the train who risked a black eye to tell my abuser he needed to treat me better. The best friend who’d sneak me cigarettes when my abuser forbid me to smoke (though he was himself a nicotine die-hard). My parents, who danced on eggshells as they tried to help me wade out of the murky waters of abuse.
Some of these people could have waived the decision to help, because there were others around who coulda, shoulda, woulda done it instead. Others could have struggled to find the words, embarrassed to tackle such a painful topic. They may even have arrived at the same conclusion as the shoppers that passed by today:
- ‘it isn’t any of my business’
- ‘it’s her own fault’
- ‘she’ll just go back to him, anyway’
- ‘why should I help her, when she isn’t helping herself?’
But they didn’t. Instead of staring at their shoes, they reached out. Even though their efforts didn’t result in my immediate epiphany, every one of them helped me to make the huge decision to overcome all the hurdles required to leave.
Every act of reaching out – big or small – helped to make me a survivor, not a victim. That’s why I’ll never under-estimate the power of compassion.
IMPORTANT Health Warning:
So, we all know that helping people is good. We should extend a helping hand. We shouldn’t judge. But, there is one individual where this is futile and destructive: your abuser.
The irony is that our abuser is often the person we most want to help, but the least able to accept it. Compassion will be twisted into a weapon to be used against you. Your energy will be wasted. Your love enables your exploitation.
I have never yet encountered a survivor who has successfully supported her man to stop abusing. So, please don’t try to fix him. There’s only one way to help: leave him shivering against that brick wall. Only by making him live the consequence of his actions, will there ever be a shred of possibility that he’ll commit to change.
If you really want to help your abuser, say ‘Adios!’ and mean it.
© Avalanche of the Soul, 2013-14