When helping isn’t helpful
Alone, physically weak, emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. At times I am overwhelmed at how profoundly difficult it is for people to get the care that is needed. From time to time I encounter people who are alone, physically weak, emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. They need help but help is hard to come by for a number of reasons.
Last winter I was involved in one such situation; the person I was involved with was all of these: alone, physically weak, emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. I wanted to help, others wanted to help and help was given but as I reflect back, the extent of the help only barely addressed the most urgent of this person’s needs.
If this were the only time I sat in such a situation, I would imagine it to be the exception to the rule, but over the years similar situations seem to come into my life time and time again and I sit with them with the same sense: “Man, why is it so hard to really help this person.”
As I’ve pondered this, several factors come to mind. The first is that “boundaries” at times seem so rigid and at other times so confusing as to not permit those who would help to engage in the way their hearts are calling them to engage. There have been times when I threw aside the boundaries, walked into another’s life, and just took over and “remedied”, what I believed to be, the problem. If you have ever done that, you will concur that after an immediate and short-lived sense of satisfaction that you have truly helped; nothing really is changed and in a short time the very problem you believed you corrected is right back as if you had never done a thing.
This kind of “help” doesn’t empower the person we care for to embrace their reality and make the decisions they alone can make to move, even though it be ever so slowly, towards a resolution of the problem. Our need for “immediate fixes” will always be frustrated by the fact that problems are rarely so simple, so straight-forward that they can be resolved quickly. In truth, there are times we try to help another when the other doesn’t even want our help or perceive a need for help.
Another factor that stands as a road block to sometimes seeing real substantive help being given and received is that of personal dignity. Now, how can “dignity” be a road block to change that improves another’s life? Well, dignity is a delicate thing. Dignity is “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect”. When I trample a boundary to help someone, the very act of “help” tramples that person’s dignity. It makes the one I seek to help feel pathetic, it makes the other feel like “a problem”; and instead of investing dignity, the act of help erodes the other’s dignity. When we give help that takes away the dignity of another, the help we give is not “help” at all.
Now take this interpersonal “dance” and throw in “program guidelines” that at times leaves a person needing assistance, wanting assistance and willing to receive assistance – ineligible for assistance and you may well just throw up your hands, walk away and say, “OH, well, this is far too crazy for me to figure out, I’m out of here.”
But those of us who are put together in such a way that we see the needs of others and feel drawn to do something can not be content just to throw up our hands and walk away. So when helping at times can be so difficult what should we do? I certainly don’t have all the answers and my recommendations may not be helpful to you, but over the years I have learned a few things that might be useful.
The first thing I recommend is that we understand God’s place in all helping relationships. What do I mean by this? Well, I believe that God loves everyone and that His love is not based on the performance of the one being loved, but on the simple fact that God has chosen to love – period. Consequently, everyone is equally loved and no one is more worthy than another to be loved. I know this concept is offensive to many who believe that one’s worthiness to receive love is dependent on who they are, how they behave, and other standards. However, such a concept flies in the face of the concept of “grace” upon which, according to the Bible, God has chosen to extend his love in relation to people. As well we need to understand that God’s love is not measured by how comfortable and easy our lives are. Being loved by God doesn’t mean life will always be easy or problem free.
Another reality about God that I have found helpful in understanding my role in helping others is that God has ways of helping that are quite mysterious and beyond my ability to understand. It is true that at times God chooses to use people to be His instruments of help, but God is not dependent on people to be his agents of help. He has many other means at His disposal.
God expects me to do what I can and not carry guilt about not doing what I am unable to do. So often our “pain” in helping relationships is that we feel guilty for not providing all the help for the needs we see. But the fact is, God expects us to do what we can and trust Him to provide help that is beyond out reach and capacity.
The second thing I recommend is that we develop a deep respect for people, regardless of who they are or their present plight. It is only as we respect the other that our “help” will have regard for the other’s dignity. I’ll be honest; this is hard to pull off. It is easier for us to respect the successful business man who has lived a clean life, than it is to respect a person who has struggled with mental illness, never been able to work. It is easier for us to respect a clean living, god-fearing mother of three, than a woman who has gone from one messed up relationship to another and now finds herself alone and broken. Why? Because we esteem a person’s worth by different standards than God does. If we can begin seeing people as God sees them, then we can extend respect to each person, regardless of their external circumstances. To be honest, God sees us all as broken and needy, equally irresponsible, equally sinful, equally, resistant to help.
When I can highly regard each person then I will be careful not to give help that disregards their dignity. We regard the dignity of those we want to help when we offer help and wait for them to chose whether they would like to receive our help or not. We regard the dignity of those we help by calling them to be agents and not treating them like victims. We regard the dignity of another when we admit that we are not the solution to their problem, but that there may be some small thing we can offer that may be useful in their quest to solve their problem. We regard the dignity of another when we respect the decisions of the one we are helping, even if that decision is to reject our offer of help.
The third and final thing I would recommend is that we deal with our own illusion that we know what is best for the one we are trying to help. We feel that way often, but that is an illusion. What might be best for me is not necessarily best for another and if it is, it may not be what is best for them right now. What is medically best may not match that person’s goals and therefore not be best. What appears financially best to me, may not at all be what the other person deems best.
Help is a funny thing: many people want it, many want to give it, but so often actual help fails to be given and received because we come to the helping relationship without the level of respect for each other that opens the doors of our hearts to each other.