Famed therapist Dr. Edwin Friedman wrote a fable about a moth that was impatient with a fly’s irrational behavior. The fly kept trying to exit a window that was closed by zipping around and banging against the pane again and again. And the moth, doubtless with all good intentions, kept trying over and over to reason with the fly to stop its futile leaping here and there over and over the same territory of the glass, never trying another window. The fable ends with the moth becoming fascinated with a light beckoning in the distance. “The moth fluttered and took wing in the direction of the glow, where it crackled itself to a crisp on an electric arc.” Ouch! Poor little moth. In a discussion booklet, Friedman says the moral of the story is that the hardest habit to break is to keep trying to break the habits of others.
Um. Guilty as charged. I know I have tried to get family members to stop bad habits and get into good ones, and they have returned the favor. Gentle reader, all of us are like moths and flies in our relationships. “Everybody plays the fool/ There’s no exception to the rule/It may be factual may be cruel.” (Thus the rock band, The Main Ingredient, wisely sings.)
As a chaplain I have to be on guard against this sort of thing happening between me and my patients if I am to “help by not helping,” another favorite aphorism from my trade. When I slip into being a moth, I sometimes find myself encouraging patients or family members who complain about a toxic person in their lives to avoid or otherwise do more to protect themselves from that person’s poison. There was the daughter of a patient who over and over kept expressing her disappointment that her brother does not help out with patient care, and does not even come over to visit. “Whenever I call him on the phone, “ the daughter said, “he doesn’t react even when I hint that he should come over. He makes me feel bad on each call, because he acts like he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that I am the one doing all the care giving, and he lives close by too.” Oh. The moth and the fly. Because she kept lamenting this at great length, I fluttered to this light of “help me” and no matter what angle I took about her accepting and thus mourning that the brother was not likely going to change and that she would just keep tormenting herself with his lack of responsibility, she just kept flitting to one strategy after another about how she has tried to get her brother to change. Just to keep track, there are now two moths and one fly in this account.
After the visit when I reflected on my mistake, I worried that the daughter would not have me come back because I failed to just let her vent, or say something ironic, which is what I usually do when I am not a moth. That is, I try to keep my distance and not become a part of push-pull patterns so that the sufferer can sort things out for herself. I vowed to do that on my next visit. Happily, she did have me back after a while, and by some coincidence (?) the brother had come over to the home not once but two times since my last visit.
I think the deeper level for why I can get emotional about toxic people is that I was not protected from them while growing up. Once I figured out this tendency, I can take greater care in not getting into the bad habit of trying to break this kind of bad habit of others. If you are in a helping profession and you find yourself becoming moth-like, it is beneficial to become aware of what kinds of bad habits most likely entice you towards those comfy-looking flames.