Some thoughts on helping, and “helping”

July 28, 2011

[Prompted by a recent Tumblr reblog by duyukdv (Urocyon here on WP), I’m dragging this old one back up to the top of the timeline. It originally appeared here on February 29, 2008.]


[For a bit more on this delightful topic, see Andrea’s “So-Not-Helpful Fixers and their Malcommendations.” Cheers.]

Everyone wants to appear helpful. Trouble is, rarely are any of us willing to do the extremely hard work of figuring out just exactly what help, if any, is actually needed. And when we fail to prevent our motives from being ruled by the social compulsion to appear helpful [and/or, the drive to promote our own careers … hint, hint], our rationality is invariably compromised by conflicting interests, and we are almost absolutely guaranteed to screw the pooch. In such cases, unless we just happen to get lucky enough to guess right — which is a bit like playing the lottery with someone else’s money — then we are very likely to end up harming the person we’re so hell-bent on “helping,” and perhaps (OMG!) ourselves as well.

Or, to repeat what is rapidly becoming an old saw in my limited repertoire: “Ninety-nine per cent of the art of helping lies in knowing what NOT to do.

But Ego is a Jealous God [as are fame and wealth], and guarding against the corrupting influence of social compulsion and ego-defense is perhaps the hardest work of all. It requires a great deal of time, self-awareness, careful critical thinking and skepticism, and rarest of all, an extraordinary commitment to self-honesty.

But, failing all that, here’s one rule-of-thumb whereby we can help ourselves to, at the very least, do no harm:

If we feel compelled to keep telling people over and over that we’re “only trying to help” … then WE’RE NOT.

This is not some cynical admonition to never try to be helpful — far from it. Rather, we should take these hard realities as a recurring opportunity to carefully examine our own commitment to actually being helpful.

So … there it is.