Earlier this year I read Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (San Francisco: Harper One, 2016) by D.L. Mayfield. Mayfield is a young woman of faith who spent much of her early adulthood volunteering with refugees (and their children) who were trying to rebuild their lives after being displaced from their homes. She started out with high hopes that she could convert them to Christianity (most were Muslim) and help them succeed in what was to them an unfathomable culture. She eventually came to see that she could make at best a modest difference in their lives. She also realized that her efforts to help others were more about her than about them:
“Once I thought I was going to save everybody. Through Jesus’s love and homework help, art projects and good literature, church activities and the sheer force of my goodwill. This way of framing life points to the dangerous thinking of the savior complex: I am the sun, and everybody else is just a moon. But of course, I don’t shine so brightly in anyone else’s eyes, and I am learning this slowly.”
I’ve had limited experience volunteering with refugees, but in other ways I’ve been tempted to develop a savior complex. In my 20s, I was trained in psychology, one of the helping professions. Like Mayfield, I was interested in helping everybody–in making them feel better, in changing the way they thought, in teaching them skills that would improve how they functioned in life, in assisting them to find purpose and meaning. I had a toolkit of strategies to use, a store of goodwill towards others, and boundless confidence in my own abilities. Like Mayfield, my interest in helping others masked another interest–in proving myself, in demonstrating how knowledgeable and skillful I was.
I would have eventually figured out I couldn’t save everyone. Thankfully, that realization hit me sooner rather than later. My first full-time therapy job was in a prison–the State Prison of Southern Michigan, now closed but at the time the largest walled prison in the world. My responsibilities included group therapy with sex offenders and with aggressive inmates. Being charitable towards my younger self, I think that my efforts were helpful for a handful of group members. For the majority of them, though, I was no more than a passing breeze, momentarily rippling the psychic surface but having no impact whatsoever on the depths of their dysfunction.
I moved on to other jobs after a few years, including a few where I think I made some difference for a substantial portion of those with whom I worked. Still, I’ve always remembered that my best efforts are insufficient in themselves and that people change not because I’ve performed some magic but because I helped them figure out ways to make changes they were already motivated to make.
I also have learned, like Mayfield, that when I focus on proving myself I do a disservice not only to those with whom I work, but also to myself. For I am then living a lie about who I am and what I need to make me whole. Mayfield says this about herself:
“I am poor, in that I do not know how to love people just as they are. I am poor in that I do not know how to love myself if I am not actively giving something. I am poor in that I do not know if I have the strength to see the kingdom of God as it was meant to be played out.”
I have always been poor in the same way. Paradoxically, the times I’ve been the richest spiritually have been when I’ve been able to recognize that poverty. When I partly retired, I experienced the loss of importance and recognition common among those who leave professional-level jobs. Perhaps, though, it’s better to look at this post-retirement era not as loss but as opportunity. I have the opportunity to accept the crumbling of the foundations on which my false self based its sense of worth. It would be a mistake to bolster that false self by desperately trying to be useful to somebody somewhere. Instead, I have the opportunity to accept the limitations of what I can do, to admit like Mayfield that I don’t do a very good job at loving either myself or others. I have the opportunity to be poor. May I have the courage to do just that.