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  • Beth Rousseau, MA, MT-BC

Spoons and the business of helping

Updated: May 25


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There is a folktale often known as the “Allegory of the Spoons” that appears in many cultures, though it likely originated in the Jewish tradition. I first heard it in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, “The Bean Trees.” Sometimes the story is known as “How they eat in Heaven.” It essentially goes like this: A man is taken to Hell, and his guide shows him that they are surrounded by food but everyone is starving. They all have these long-handled spoons that make it impossible to eat. They can’t get the food into their mouths. Like Tantalus of the Greeks, what they need is just out of reach and that is their eternal torture. The damned souls are crying in hysterical pain, aware of nothing else around them.

The man cries out, “Oh, to be in Heaven! Where the spoons are surely much kinder and everyone can feed themselves!” The guide clarifies for him: “Oh no. The spoons in Heaven are the same. But there, the people feed each other.” If this story is new for you, it’s an “ah ha” moment. ‘Clever’, you might think. ‘Yes, isn’t it nice to help people. We should all do that.’ Perhaps you even take it a step further to consider how we all create our own personal “heaven” or “hell” by how we respond to our circumstances. It’s not the spoon you’re given, it’s what you do with it. And the moral seems to be: heaven means both giving and accepting help, and caring as much about others’ circumstances as our own.

I was reminded of that story today when a friend posted a video of her 2 yr old twins. Certainly these children are perfectly capable of feeding themselves. But the boy was spooning food into his sister’s mouth. Both kids were smiling. At an age where I’m sure they often fight over everything, it was a moment where one was enjoying his ability to help, and one was enjoying the gift. Help wasn’t needed, but it was enjoyed by both the giver and the receiver. They love each other and that’s how it showed in that moment. It’s why meals are a social activity. You can eat alone, but it’s better with someone else.

As a therapist, my primary vocation in life is to help people. My therapy practice is a small business as well, and must find ways to stay profitable. The paradox in therapy is that the people who need the most help often have the least ability to pay. Many therapists address this issue with a “sliding scale” or by having “pro bono” slots in their schedule. I personally have heard several healing professionals joke about coming around to the idea that “rich people need help, too.” We want to help, but we also want to eat. So often it feels like you have to choose. I recently was lucky enough to stumble on a yoga studio that was willing to include my family music groups in their schedule without a big investment on my part up front. For so many therapists, finding an affordable space is one of the biggest barriers to work. I am so grateful that I found a place where they believe in my work. Of course, yoga studios aren’t free, and any business I bring in is good for their business. The owner and I have discovered a shared passion for working with families and are hoping to expand together into a sustainable business model, along with other like-minded professionals. We want to create a community center where families can access healing arts services and get support. And we are both moms of small children, so we know exactly how much help young families need everyday! We want to keep the doors open to do what we love, but more than that, we want to help. And we are hoping that by working together, we can succeed where we might flounder on our own. I truly believe that social justice is the only thing worth giving a damn about in this life. We all have to look out for ourselves and our families and put food on the table. Sometimes keeping body and soul together takes every bit of what we have. If you have any left over, why not turn to mom next to you, and see if you can help? After my first child was born, I suffered greatly with post-partum depression and trauma. I got help, and learned how to help myself. How could I do anything now but try to spare some other mom that suffering? If I’m not trying to make the world better, why the hell am I on it? If life has meaning, this must be it. Kurt Vonnegut (one of my favorite authors) was an avowed atheist who said: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.”

But he also said: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies - God damn it, you've got to be kind.”

And:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

He also said the arts is no way to make a living. (I guess he’d know, although he seems to have done fine for himself.) He said art is the way we make life bearable, and that the only proof he’d seen for the existence of God was music. If I can make anyone’s life more bearable through music, I will feel pretty good about how I spent my time. And the best thing about music is that it’s interactive: there is a sound maker and a sound receiver. Sure, you can make music and enjoy it alone. But it’s better when you make it with someone else.


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