The Helping Voice

I first met Dan shortly after the psychiatrist found a shiv fashioned from a toothbrush in his linen. I was called into work early to supervise him in a one-to-one capacity—a safety measure reserved exclusively for patients who were a threat to themselves or others. Though I was regularly pulled away from my regular duties to assist the unit in one-to-one care, this was the first time I was assigned to a patient with homicidal ideation and the means to act on it.

Dan stood at roughly six feet and 200 pounds. Recently incarcerated with a regularly agitated affect, he made even the burliest Mental Health Aides take a purposeful, restraint-ready stance. I followed him around everywhere: I was by his side while he participated in activities of daily living, slept, and attended therapy groups. Frankly, I was shaking in my scrubs. Nevertheless, by the next day, Dan was off one-to-one supervision and resumed regular patient status.

Meanwhile, I was back to one of my primary duties: leading therapy groups for patients. Dan slept during most of my shift. Still, he managed to attend the final group of the night—evening wellness wrap up—where the nursing staff sweetly interrogated each patient with questions regarding their goals, anxiety and depression ratings, medication side effects, and the likes.

I leaned forward—my buttocks resting inches away from being altogether off the seat—my disposition intentionally warm and bubbly. I used the vocal tone characteristic of nurses everywhere, that peppy maternal “helping voice” adopted by nearly every health care professional and anyone trying to genuinely help another. Perhaps you’ve heard it at McDonald’s as a chipper cashier asks, “What can I get for you?”

Some can recall listening to their fellow congregants as they gratingly put forth, “How can I pray for you?” Yet, on this day, Dan heard my reproduction of the helping voice.

“Dan are you experiencing any depression or anxiety?” I asked intensely. He didn’t reply so I followed up, “Dan, can you rate your depression on a scale of one to ten with ten being the worst?” With another unsettling silence, I tossed in the final question, “Dan, can you rate your anxiety on a scale of one to ten with ten being the worst?” He interrupted me,

“Can you talk to me like I’m a f*cking man?”

Instantly, my helping voice keeled over. I sat across from twelve patients utterly humiliated. For a moment, my patients saw who I was—an overly idealistic twenty-something with an associate’s degree, a soft Messiah complex, and no aptitude to meaningfully aide much of anyone. For a moment, I experienced reality alongside my patients rather than trying to conjure something up to influence their reality. For a moment, I was undeniably small, fragile, and human. I felt the satanic effects of the helping voice. In this moment I could help no one.

I theorize that the helping voice is improperly named: it is the fixing voice, the “you are incapable so let me do something for you” voice. I’ve found that our purportedly sacred attempts to help are cleverly disguised attempts to fix. The helping voice is deeply rooted in condescension.

Anything that removes us a degree or two from the human experience is a catastrophe. Whether it be faith, vocation, or affluence, nothing should interfere with our foundational interconnectedness with each other. We are humans—either a little lower or a little higher than animals, depending on who you ask—and attempts to make us otherwise are quite literally inhuman.

Consider, for example, how some social scripts cultivate disingenuous and characteristically inhuman moments in our faith tradition. When Christians dispense food while entirely disregarding the circumstances that led an individual to hunger, we allow inhumanness to step into our supposed helping strategies. Meanwhile, our God incarnationally became homeless. To aid the disenfranchised we must, in some way, align with the disenfranchised. We are made of the same materials—we have the same God-stuff— as those we attempt to help. 

Dan abruptly reminded me of this eternal truth: I have nothing to offer apart from a shared human experience. My attempts to elevate myself—helping voice or otherwise—lead to shoddy and insincere bonds. We have nothing to offer apart from each other. Leaving behind the scripts that idolize some and disempower others is how the human experience becomes more palatable.

Lucas is a full time human services undergrad student living in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. Originally from New England, Lucas spent the early part of his career working in nonprofits and behavioral healthcare. Interested primarily in the social sciences and post-liberal theology, he weaves together observation and theory to critique Christian praxis.

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