You ever thought about how much power you have when you're helping someone? I have.
I do volunteer work, when I can, when I have the spoons left over from taking care of myself and my cats. And every time I help someone, this is what I notice: By helping them, I am taking on a role that gives me power over them.
I used to volunteer at a food pantry. I'd been a client in the past, and when I had free time, I came back as a volunteer, taking down information from voice mail and stocking food. I watched the people who came into the food pantry, and the way they acted was very much like a frightened cat--the don't-hurt-me pose, down low to the ground, soft voice as though they were afraid to assert themselves, or ashamed, or thought they had to be subservient in order to be helped. I don't know; I'm better with cats; but if these people had been cats, they'd have been feral cats sneaking up to a feeding station for the first time.
As a volunteer at the food pantry, I had the power, if I wanted to use it, to dictate what these people had to eat. Beans instead of corn? Chicken nuggets instead of leftover pizza? My choice, not theirs. And socially, I'm allowed to do that. I would probably have been able to, completely groundlessly, accuse someone of not needing our help and turn them away, if I had wanted to. And most of these clients are older than me, with more life experience; many are parents. If I hadn't been helping them, they would have had some degree of power over me.
Incidentally, when you donate to a food pantry, I highly recommend that at least some of the food you donate should be morale-booster type food--things that simply taste nice and make people feel good, things like hot chocolate, parmesan cheese, tea or coffee, candies, the good jelly instead of the cheap grape stuff, the canned fruit instead of your leftover water chestnuts, etc. Having used a food pantry in the past, I can assure you that having something good in that paper bag can really make your day, and if there's anyone who needs their day made, it's someone who's short on food. Also ask the pantry if they give out toiletries or kitchen supplies; can openers are particularly useful and there's almost no one who can't use a bottle of shampoo. Also ask if they need baby items; some pantries are overflowing with baby items and others never seem to have enough; if yours is the latter sort, ask which size diapers they're lowest on beforehand. I don't know how many times I've stared in dismay at a huge pile of size 3 next to two lonely diapers in size 2, or vice versa, and wondered how annoying it would be to diaper your kid a size too big or small.
Back to the power thing. In case you're wondering, I never turned anyone away, nor saw any other worker doing so. Maybe one in two or three hundred clients probably didn't need the food we were giving out, but even those people we didn't send away because, well, it's food. Giving someone food, whether or not they need it, is not going to hurt them or anyone else. And can you imagine if we'd sent someone away, mistakenly thinking that they didn't need the food, when they actually did? Hunger is a real thing, people. I don't wish it on anyone. I'd rather be swindled one in two hundred times than leave someone hungry one in two thousand times.
It's not just volunteer work that gives you power over people. All kinds of helping does, even if you're paid for it, even if you're helping family. Now that I'm working on the ASAN Disability Day of Mourning
list, I'm acutely aware of the kind of power caregivers have over disabled people in their charge. And parents over children, disabled or not. Cops over... well, pretty much anyone who isn't a cop. And when that power gets abused, people get hurt. People live in fear and pain, desperately trying to stay alive, knowing that their abuser is seen as a hero for "helping" them. They have very little recourse when they are hurt by someone whose power over them comes from their role as a helper.
I asked my aide, Emily, whether she was aware of that power gap between her and me, and she replied, yes. She's acutely aware of it. She knows she has power and she refuses to abuse it. I don't know if I was reading her right, but I almost wonder whether she's a tiny bit afraid of how much power people like her have over people like me, if they choose to take it. Emily is a rather good aide and she likes her job; most of her clients are younger than me, but she has other adult clients and some of them aren't as good at communicating as I am. If she wanted to, Emily could really hurt people and probably get away with it. But she doesn't, not because something's keeping her from doing it, but because she doesn't want to
. I think she just likes her clients because she likes people and she sees her clients as people. That's the way most of the good ones seem to think; they recognize their clients as people.
But swap Emily out with someone who's narcissistic, psychopathic, or just simply doesn't care... Well. I read about the result of that all the time. Some of it ends up on the memorial pages.