People Don’t Need Rescuing
Rescuing sounds like such a positive thing to do: heroic, compassionate, Christlike. And much in our culture encourages us to become rescuers, even to adopt the persona of the Rescuer as our own. Our myths, legends and fairy tales are full of brave and resourceful people rescuing the weak and the vulnerable. And all of them are constantly recycled in our TV shows and films.
These stories are embedded in our collective consciousness and because of this they have a profound effect on our sponge-like and developing personalities as children. We see in them an ideal to aspire to, and a ready-made answer to the impossibly difficult question of how to be in the world. Many of us, therefore, have from a very early age assumed a heroic and romantic view of our relationships with others: they can be the victim, the helpless and hapless one in need of rescuing and we can be the hero, the one who sorts everything out and makes it OK. Once this early decision is made it is then very possible for us to go
through life with this Rescuer self-image, always looking to put right what others can’t, and struggling to relate to anyone other than as a Rescuer to a Victim.
In this way we are primed from an early age to see the ministry and other caring professions in a romantic and heroic light. This is reinforced by models of ministry and service that cast the church leader or the ideal Christian as a person who does things for others, who sorts out their problems and conjures solutions to situations that tie others up in knots. The ideal Christian does not carry someone else’s burden with them, they carry it for them. The ideal Christian is the Knight in Shining Armour made flesh.
However, as Transactional Analysis (TA) theory shows, rescuing is one part of a doomed pattern of relating. TA contains a very simple but powerful tool for analysing relationships called the Drama Triangle.
This suggests that there are three identities to which we are all drawn. Some of us are inclined to assume the identity of the Victim, others the Persecutor and still others the Rescuer. We then become locked in a pattern of relating that is constricted and inflexible and that can never lead to true intimacy.
Those of us whose identities are tied up with victimhood will never relate to others as a complete self, but only as a two-dimensional character seeking to attract the heroism or the abuse of others either of which reinforces our identity as a Victim. We relate to others in this way out of a belief that they are better then us: they deserve to be here; they deserve respect; they deserve to be loved, but we don’t.
We who assume the relational role of Persecutor on the other hand are convinced that it is we and not others who are OK. From our one-up position we are able to look down on the Victim and the Rescuer alike and try to force them to correct their erroneous ways. Judgemental and critical, everything will only be OK if everyone else changes.
Rescuers share this exalted position with the Persecutor. Like the Persecutor we Rescuers believe that others are not OK, that they are unable to cope, incapable of solving their own problems and incompetent to thrive in the world. We discount not only their potency, but also their worth and it is important that we do so, since that is the only way we can protect our belief that we’re OK. And, of course, our belief that we’re OK can only be sustained by the corresponding belief that others are not. However, the sad truth about this need to occupy a one-up position in our relationships is that it arises from a need to escape the painful and therefore suppressed belief that we are not OK. So long as we can convince ourselves that others are not OK – by constantly rescuing them – then we can escape our own vulnerability and sense of shame.
A further factor in the creation of the Rescuer persona is a fear of intimacy. We engage with the other in order to achieve intimacy but default into a rescuing role because we believe that is the only way we will be accepted by others. For this reason being a Rescuer can never really bring relational fulfilment or satisfaction. We are left feeling empty and dissatisfied by our relationships; a feeling that will ultimately provoke us to switch roles, from Rescuer to Persecutor, or perhaps to Victim from where we can temporarily look for our own Rescuer until such time as we feel fit to put on our shining armour once more.
It is worth pointing out that this Rescuer-Victim relationship has another fault line running through it which is the unwillingness of the Victim to be rescued. This may seem contradictory since, as I’ve pointed out, the Victim is on the lookout for a Rescuer. But as soon as the Victim allows the Rescuer to successfully intervene then they can no longer be a Victim, and being a Victim is essential to their self-definition. It is their identity and to surrender it is more threatening than whatever it is from which the Rescuer thinks they need saving.
It’s easy then to see why Rescuers are attracted to the ministry. Few positions in society allow an individual to assume a one-up position more readily than the stereotypical church minister. In a position of authority that commands respect, the minister is also a figure to whom others look for help. Like a child lets loose in a sweet shop the Rescuer minister has a congregation of people who can easily be cast in the role of Victim, people he can use to bolster his belief that he is OK and they are not. From his pulpit he can tell them what’s wrong with them and what they need to do to sort it out and in their homes he can be the one whose prayer is highly prized, the intercessor who has the ear of God.
It also allows a person to hide from real relationships of intimacy behind the mask of the ministerial persona. We ministers don’t have to be ourselves, in fact it can often be the case that others don’t want us to be ourselves, demanding instead that we conform to the stereotype. We are then required us to live the public life of a pseudo personality within which we are never truly threatened by the challenge of intimacy. None of this is sustainable of course, nor is it a Biblical model for ministry.
It is clearly true that on times people really do need to be helped. What I am drawing attention to here is not the act of helping people because of their need, but rather the compulsion to help people because of the need of the helper to help. This is not what Christ taught or modelled. It is not love.
When I attempt to rescue another with the out-of-awareness motivation to sustain a false identity rather than as a genuine response to an actual need they have, then I am failing to love them. Instead of being respected the other is being discounted. To be Christlike is to empower Victims, Rescuers and Persecutors alike to choose to transcend their self-defeating self-image (even as I am being delivered from enslavement to my own self-image as a Rescuer, Viti). And the only way I can influence this is if I step outside of my familiar role of Rescuer and respect the other person’s capacity to think and act for themselves, to convey God’s unconditional acceptance of them through my own welcoming of them into my life as they are.