Year of Mercy

Saying No to the Need-Needy

We need to feel needed, but that doesn't mean we should always be indulged

[In our ongoing series on practical ways of “Practicing Mercy”, we look at #10 of 56: “Be generous enough to allow someone to help you; people need to feel needed.” with a piece entitled “No Man is An Island”, but here Elizabeth Duffy shares a different perspective that is also very interesting – Editors]

This year, for whatever reason, has been a crucible for a number of people who are dear to me. More than a handful of friends and family have lost loved ones to disease, divorce and fatal accidents. I’ve been in a muddle, wondering what to do for them: which meal train to join, which services to attend, into which GoFundMe accounts to make deposits and how generally to “be there” for people who may or may not want a bunch of spectators attendant to their grief.

As a mother who, for decades now, has had at least one toddler in tow wherever I go, even what I am able to do is limited by my own responsibility to my family. So while I may feel a desire to drop everything and run to the aid of those I know who are suffering, logistically, I have not often been able to do so.

The matter of offering and accepting help has been a fraught experience for me, of guessing what other people’s material needs might be in their time of crisis, while simultaneously wondering how to manage my own affairs so that I can follow through on my offerings.

I’m inclined to think that the greatest mercy we can offer one another when life is at a breaking point, is clear, cogent communication — the remarkably simple mercy of letting one’s yes mean yes, and one’s no mean no.

People need to feel needed, it’s true, but it is not necessarily true that every need-needy person needs to have his or her needs indulged.

I am desperate to help my friend who recently lost her husband. I want to take care of her for as long as it takes, however she needs. In the moments right after I heard the news, I was willing to offer her the moon if she asked for it.

On the flipside, I haven’t actually been spousing my own marriage and mothering my own children to full capacity, so I’m not sure how I would expect to take on this role in someone else’s family as well.

In fact, part of the appeal of rushing in for those in need is that other people’s problems seem fresh and clear from the outside looking in. Leaping out of my own family — with its well-worn and complex gratings — in order to attend to someone else for a change sounds like a pretty nice respite.

As it happens, there are 600 other people who also care deeply for this family, many of whom are also showing up, cleaning house, making meals, hugging, loving and sometimes exhausting the survivors who really do need some time to be alone and learn how to live again without their spouse and father.

How wise and merciful my friend has been to us, even in her own time of suffering, to state clearly and specifically, her needs (yes, meals are helpful), as well as what she doesn’t need (for other people to take her husband’s place).

Sometimes it is an act of mercy to submit humbly and as quickly as possible to the reality that I don’t get to be the savior in a hurting person’s life.

At the same time, it is a discipline for me not to offer the moon, if I’m only capable of offering an encouraging text and a silent prayer.

It is not necessarily a Christian virtue to give everyone we know what we believe would make them, or us, happy. Our responsibility as Christians is to search our hearts, to submit the realities we find there to Jesus, and to be frank with one another in all charity about what material response these truths require.

In the Year of Mercy, let us be honest and humble givers and receivers of the truth.


Elizabeth Duffy writes at Elizabeth Duffy: Perspectives on Catholic Life, Family and Culture and has work published or forthcoming at OSV, On Faith, The Catholic Educator and Image.