The Power of Not Giving a Damn
Sermon to Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
February 7, 2016, Community Ministry Sunday
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
The First Really Bad Job I Ever Had
I have another psychological sermon for you today. This one inspired by the harm that happens when people do too much for others and become victimized. I see this all the time in my work as a Community Minister. A lot of people make themselves sick.
I started my working career in food service. I entered the culinary union at the age of 15 as labor laws did not apply to food service and I needed a job. Back in those days Culinary School wasn’t a thing, and I would do four years as an apprentice and five years as a journeyman. I cooked and catered my way through High School, College, Grad School and Theological School.
During those years I had some really fine jobs. And one bad one.
The bad one was when I took a position with a fast food company. I wanted to get married and I needed a second job to earn enough cash to pay for the wedding.
The people who worked there had “spirit.”
What I mean by that is the company actually had what amounted to motivational speakers who traveled around to give pep talks to the employees about what a wonderful job they had.
We would all stand in a circle and there were chants and cheers. We were all supposed to yell “This Is The Best Place To Work Anywhere In The World!”
I’m proud to say the job didn’t last. It was in fact the dirtiest kitchen I’ve ever worked in. There wasn’t a food safety rule that wasn’t routinely ignored. The employees were mistreated and often cheated out of pay they’d earned.
The job of the motivational cheerleaders was to convince the workers that the job was better than it was. The workers were told they should care so much about having happy customers and a happy shift supervisor that they were not supposed to notice that the pay envelope had been shorted and the boss was a bully.
If you complained that your pay didn’t add up right, or that you were told to do something you knew wasn’t safe in the food locker, you were told you “Didn’t have the right spirit to work here.”
The bosses used that to turn every objection around. The problem wasn’t that the company was cheating you. The problem wasn’t that food safety was being ignored. The real problem was that you didn’t have the “Right Spirit” to work on the “Team.”
Even after all these years I still find myself angry when I remember that job.
This was one of my first experiences with what we in helping professions call “Overcare,” following the lead of Doc Childre of the HeartMath Institute.
Overcare is when you care too much about something, and as a result someone takes advantage of you. The only cure for it is to care up to a point, and then put on the brakes.
Care is Good
I’m a big fan of living a caring life. Heathy care, which we who follow the HeartMath system call True Care, is a tonic. It renews our nervous system. It builds and then reinforces the connections that link us to other people. It’s regenerative when we are stressed. It even improves brain function.
I sometimes think of it like a really good cup of coffee. It’s smooth, rich, renewing and almost worth the money the barista overcharges for it.
But there can be too much of a good thing. One cup of great coffee is a good thing. Fifteen cups of coffee will turn any of us in a jangled, anxious wreck.
So also for care. If we go too far in our feelings of care for others, we become the victims of Overcare.
Today I want to talk about Overcare, how to recognize it, how to correct from it by knowing when to set limits to the amount of care you give another person.
Feeders v. Drains
We have have an inner energetic life. There are things that renew us and pour energy into the bucket of our lives. But there are things that deplete us. They are like holes in our bucket.
I encourage my clients to always have a rough awareness of the ratio of “feeders” to “drains” in their lives. The idea is that you try to set things up so that there is always a positive balance. If you are pouring out of your energetic bucket into the buckets of other people by caring and helping them, you need to be sure you’ve got enough pouring into your bucket so the level of energy stays at least half full.
We all want to cultivate the things that renew us, and control the things the deplete us. If your spouse has cancer it’s great that you want to help him or her through that. But, the advice you will receive from the cancer care community is that you have to set limits. You will need respite yourself. You will need to be sure that the demands made on you are counterbalanced somehow.
As I put this, “You can’t be there for someone else if you are not going to be there for yourself first.” Just like you were in an aircraft that lost cabin pressure. You put your own oxygen mask on first before you try to help someone else. Otherwise you will both pass out.
The bank account of your inner emotional energy should always have a positive balance, and if it dips into the red you need to take care of that to bring the balance back up. And quickly.
A World of Overcare
Unfortunately, it’s easy to get that wrong.
Overcare is seductive and subtile. We see it in addictions work where an addict will exploit other people with claims of helplessness in an effort to guilt-trip others into helping. The addict then takes advantage and the addiction continues.
Or you feel sorry for someone at work who is having trouble. So you help out a little bit. Except that, over time, it’s more than a little bit. Pretty soon the other person feels entitled. They may even get promoted because they seem calm and cool—mostly because they got you to do their work.
Overcare allows others to take advantage of you.
Many of us come from homes that have issues. In troubled homes people who are being abused sometimes put up with the abuse because they have an emotional attachment to the the family, so they conceal all the bad stuff out of a misplaced loyalty. Overcare can get you abused.
The common theme is we can easily become pushovers. We can be taken advantage of, or easily defeated. We end up doing things we don’t want to do, maybe even tasks that legitimately belong to others.
In the 1970s psychologist Lawrence LeShan did research on the personality of people who were diagnosed with cancer. He quickly discovered, and the finding has proved to be a robust one, that overwhelmingly people living with cancer tend to be the care taking members of their families who put everyone else first and themselves last. Whenever I mention that and ask for a show of hands at one of the workshops I do to help people boost their cancer resiliency, hands still go up all over the room. Overcare can make you sick.
I began many years ago working with people who struggled with illnesses that had a stress-related component. It’s been rewarding, but there were some things about it that I found very, very surprising. I found case after case of people who realized they were exhausting themselves on behalf of other people, but they wouldn’t stop because they believed that would make them blameworthy. They were taught that caring for other people should be self-destructive.
The blame for this I place squarely on the people who wrote the Bible and on a whole lot of traditional religious education. Or least the parts of it about Jesus.
The Dark Side of Christianity
In our society there is a dark and dangerous social meme in Judeo-Christian culture that we are supposed to sacrifice ourselves for other people. Some of you who grew up on churches that had a heavily emphasis on sin and guilt will remember this. I feel it is really destructive.
In lots of places we were taught by our elders that it was wrong to look after our own self-interest. When working with the very ill I often find that they cannot distinguish between having a healthy self-interest (seeing to it that your own legitimate needs are met) and being selfish (advancing yourself at the expense of the legitimate needs of others). They have a healthy self-interest confused with an unhealthy selfishness. As a result they do not take care of themselves and end up being taken advantage because they Overcare.
I have met women expected by their families to prepare Thanksgiving Dinner for the whole extended family, the day after they had chemotherapy. I’ve seen unsuccessfully launched children take financial advantage of their parents, justifying that by saying “Well, if you really cared about me…”
An Issue of Punctuation
In the 5th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we read the Sermon on the Mount said to have been given by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. It is the longest teaching and one of the most widely quoted. It contains some of the most remarkable verses, including the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. But is also contains some really dark stuff. Like this:
“…if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Really? “If anyone wants to…take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Say What? I’m supposed to give everything I have, including the shirt on my back, to anyone who asks for it?”
“Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Wait a minute. Am I actually expected to do just give out unlimited loans to anyone who wants one? Am I actually obligated to give to every single beggar I meet, even those who are obviously running a scam?
No. That’s not what it means at all. But that is how it has been translated and that is how it got picked up into our culture. The theme is that it is somehow praiseworthy to care about others to the point where you hurt yourself.
This is the dark side of the Jesus tradition, and it’s been interpreted to mean that there is something praiseworthy in self-destructive caring. We are not supposed to honor our own legitimate self-interest. Instead, we are supposed to let others walk over us even to the point where we are harmed.
Jesus didn’t really mean this. The educated classes in Jesus time spoke Hebrew or Greek. Jesus was not an educated person. He spoke the language of his time, a rough street vernacular called Aramaic. We know that because there are places where his actual words were considered so important they were copied down.
On the cross he is reported to have said “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?). Those words are neither Hebrew nor Greek. They are Aramaic.
Aramaic was a street language in use among everyday people. One of its features is that it had no formal punctuation. Especially, it had no way to show emphasis in that way we might emphasize a statement with an exclamation point.
Instead, an Aramaic speaker showed emphasis by exaggerating what was said. Today we call this hyperbole. These exaggerated statements were not meant to be taken literally and the hearers in Jesus’s time understood that.
So, when elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said…
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.,,,And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”
Jesus did not actually mean that he wanted people to cut off their hands or pluck out their eyes, and we can be sure there were no eyeless followers with amputated hands among his disciples. If there were, I’m sure someone would have mentioned it.
Jesus was simply using hyperbole to show emphasis as all Aramaic speakers did. He was just saying it was a good thing to be a generous person.
This is also what he was doing earlier in the Sermon on the Mount when he said those things about caring for others.
He wasn’t recommending Overcare —giving anyone anything they wanted, whenever they wanted—that was hyperbole. He didn’t really think anyone should do that. He was just saying it was really good to be a caring person.
But when his words were written down in Greek (the language the New Testament) they were copied down literally. And for centuries people have mistakenly believed that self-destructive caring was good. It’s not. Overcare is never a good idea. It has never been recommended by any person of true spiritual authority.
How do we tell Legitimate Care from Overcare?
There is an easy way to determine if the care you feel for someone else is True Care, or if you have gone too far and are Overcaring. It goes back to paying attention to Feeders and Drains—those experiences that pour energy into the bucket of your life and those things which are like holes in that bucket.
True Care is renewing. It helps both the person who gives and the person who receives the care. It reinforces healthy connection. Basically, it feels good regardless of whether we are the giver or receiver.
This may be a silly example, but let me use the example of one of my cats—The Late Lord Gray Shadow Underfoot. Shadow was a magnificent cat who ruled our household for18 years with a gentle paw. He would sing to the other cats when they were upset, and when they were ill he would stay close and snuggle.
Toward the end of his life Shadow had a lot of medical problems: Cholangiohepatitis Chronic Bronchitis, Malignant Melanoma and he was an insulin dependent diabetic. For all that, with excellent veterinary care he was happy right up to the end. But it was expensive to care for him, and with the needs for two insulin shots and one blood test per day, he took up a lot of our time.
It didn’t matter at all. I loved this big guy and I loved taking care of him. It felt good to meet his needs and every day he was with us was a joy because he gave back more energy than he took. That is an example of True Care, whether for a cat or a person. The hallmark is that both parties benefit. It feels good.
When I hooked myself up to my biofeedback equipment and looked at my heart rhythm what I would see would be coherent and synchronized rhythms. All my body systems worked together better. I was stronger, happier, healthier because of my care for my Feline Overlord.
Overcare is the reverse. It takes energy away. It is burdensome. It doesn’t feel good. It feels bad, worried, anxious. You feel used, taken advantage of, inconvenienced and so on. The energy flow is all or mostly one way. Your heart rhythms become incoherent and chaotic. Cortisol and Adrenaline flow instead of the vitality hormone DHEA in the blood, and endorphins in the brain. Overcare may sometimes be unavoidable, but it always takes its toll.
You can tell True Care from Overcare by how you feel when you do it. Once you set aside the social conditioning that says you should sacrifice yourself for others, your feelings will guide you correctly.
The thing is that all cases of Overcare began with True Care that somehow went wrong. Often we became over-attached. We get an idea of how things should turn out and tried to shape events to cause that.
Sometimes another person simply takes advantage from the get-go, and they go looking for someone who will dance the Dance of Overcare with them.
As one of my colleagues says, “Here’s a simple question you can ask yourself from time to time. ‘Is what I am caring about adding quality to my life or is it adding stress?’”
This is what the title of my sermon this morning is about.
The phrase “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” is of course what Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film, Gone With The Wind, believed by film scholars to be one of the top movies ever made.
Rhett Butler has been trying to win Scarlett’s affection for many years and she basically puts him through hell because of it. She secretly loves another, Ashley Wilkes. But she knows Rhett loves her so she plays him and takes advantage. Rhett moves into Overcare for Scarlett, and she makes him miserable.
In the script, Butler finally gives up on trying to win Scarlett’s genuine affection, says the famous phrase and walks out into the early morning fog. He set a limit.
In the last scene of the movie Scarlett feels regret, realizes that she’s lost a good thing and vows to win him back. We’re not told what happens. Maybe in some imagined realm they will reconnect and move into a healthy relationship. If so, that happened only because Rhett set a limit and decided he would not Overcare any more.
And that is the power of not giving a damn. It’s the realization that you are in Overcare. What you care about is adding stress and not giving enough back. Then it is time to set a limit. Perhaps not explosively walking off into the morning fog as Rhett Butler did. Perhaps starting with smaller limits and then strengthening. But not continuing to be hooked.
I can promise you one thing. If you do this you will learn something about how the people you care about care about you. If they sulk, escalate and try to get you to change back, the people you care about do not really care about you.
But if they say, “Oh!” and stop the pressure. Then the possibility of a deeper, healthy relationship exists. I think even Jesus would approve of such a change.
And that’s my sermon.