Do we know how to help people to help people? 6 lessons I’ve learned

We thought we were going to feature an interview this month with Bruce Reyes-Chow; however, as it happens, he is in the Philippines, arriving shortly before Typhoon Haiyan, and so we will hear from him next month.

But the very fact that Bruce is on the ground during a major natural disaster -- and blogging about it -- leads me to this blog post. That repetitive title is not a mistake. Do we, in fact, know enough about helping people to be able to teach others how to help people?

You would think this wasn’t a skill that needed to be learned. But I’ve learned over the course of many years that some of the things I thought were obviously helpful and good things to do – well, they weren’t. I’ve had to completely change my own understanding of helping so that I could in turn teach others how to help, not to mention help others myself. And I’m dubious even saying that because I know that I’m still getting things wrong and still learning, but that’s the first thing on my list of things I’ve learned.

  1. Be humble One of the things I’ve learned about helping others is that I never know the whole story. I’ve thought, “I’m going to go in and fix this,” only to learn that there was much more going on than I thought, or that the situation was much different than I thought. When teaching others about serving the world, I’m much more circumspect about suggesting there are obvious solutions to complex problems.
  2. Setting boundaries is very hard but crucial One of the reasons setting boundaries is so hard is that it’s humbling (see lesson 1) to admit I have limits to what I can do, who I can help, the problems I can solve. I have certain parameters within which I can operate. Outside of that, things get a little wonky – and sometimes a lot wonky. Some of the worst disasters in helping others occur when I take on something that’s beyond my purview. (If you want a good example of this, and a good laugh, listen to Squirrel Cop.) It’s a very hard thing to teach people that they cannot solve everything by effort and good will. I think we all probably need to learn this the hard way. But this is one I try to teach by example. I don’t always succeed.
  3. Listen for what people actually need, not what we think they need I’ve learned that helping people takes much more time than I originally thought because it’s not as easy to determine the need as I originally believed. My temptation is to go into a situation and say, “Oh, you need this.” The people involved may not agree. For example, I did a survey for the youth at my parish, assuming they would want one kind of program, but instead they wanted something completely different. This wasn’t a matter of simply saying, “Well, you know best” and doing what they said. With further input and discussion, we came up with a plan. I encourage people always to solicit input from the people they want to serve before running roughshod into a situation to “fix” it. Which leads to lesson 4.
  4. Service is mutual Continually being in the position of “I am helping you” is not healthy for me or for you. I react badly to any campaign that talks about “we need to help those who have nothing.” Nobody has nothing. People have a voice, have ideas, have skills, have desires – those are not nothing. People can pray, can tell stories, can encourage, can participate in their own well-being – those are not nothing. Are we teaching our churches that service is a one-way street? Do we allow those we want to help to participate in that process? If Christ is indeed the person that we feed and clothe, then perhaps one of the lessons in that Scripture passage is that we need to listen to and learn from that person.
  5. To help, we may need to change a system, not a person In Session 10 of Confirm not Conform (which is all about learning how to help), we have an exercise that involves picking up a basket of tennis balls that has been scattered on the floor. On the first time through, people put the balls in the basket, and they’re done. The second time through, the person by the basket keeps throwing the balls back out on the floor until the youth are exhausted, then asks, “What’s wrong with you? Why couldn’t you pick them all up?” The answer is, the balls scattered on the floor was a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. And sometimes we need to treat the symptom, but we’re not going to solve the problem until we understand what the actual problem is. I try to teach that if we want to really help, we may need to look beyond an individual situation to what is the root cause of that situation, and to see what we can do to change it. Which leads to the final lesson I’ve learned.
  6. Helping takes time I used to think, “Oh, we’ll just do this and it’s done” – plant this tree, paint this fence, feed this person. Now I know that helping – really helping, not just doing something that makes me feel good about having helped – means a long slog. It means strategizing and making plans. It means paying attention to Hurricane Sandy and the shooting at Newtown one year later, not just moving on. It means having a focus on a couple of areas, even if it means I can’t help in others (see: boundaries). It means I’m not a hero, just a part of a much larger effort. I teach people that helping is not easy, not glamorous, not quick, and often not fun. It all comes back to humility in the end. I am not the savior I’d like to be. None of us are.

We don’t need to be a savior; we’ve got one of those. But we still can help – truly help – when we are aware of our limitations and open to the possibility that helping those who need help may not ultimately depend upon us.

For other great resources on helping others, please take a look at the website How Matters, which has tons of resources and links. Although they are mostly related to International Aid, much of it is relevant to local work as well.

Also, while it’s still up, check out the site Good Intentions are Not Enough.

Finally, for a quick read that may be a good small group discussion, take a look at the recent Slate article Please Don't Send Your Old Shoes to the Philippines, and one from a year ago on food drives, Can the Cans.

And I send my prayers to you as you seek to serve the world in love.