When Help Doesn’t Help.
I’ve been talking to a number of people recently about helping people. It’s a difficult issue. So many of us naturally want to help people. And so many people really need help. Why do these things not align themselves better? Why are so many people perpetually needy, and others perpetually giving? Giving, often, to the point of resentment, burn-out, exhaustion, and demoralization. What can be done?
I confess first that I don’t have all the answers. Maybe not even many of the answers. Maybe almost none of them. But I know what has worked for me in my life. And what I have found, in so many cases is that there is a huge difference between being of service, and giving help. It’s kind of a give a fish/teach to fish thing. But it also has an aspect of something a dear friend of mine calls “Emersonian Girding”.
Because, as a member of AA, I believe strongly in being of service to the alcoholic who still suffers, to people in need. Being of service to those people means providing them with real world aid that will actually help them, if possible. But I will not help an alcoholic with money (I’ve given a few people a few dollars here or there, but not more, and not twice.). Nor will I help an alcoholic who is drunk. If someone called me drunk asking for help, I’d say: “Call back when you’re not loaded,” and hang up.
People who are in the grips of crisis asking for help are often asking us to negate their problems for them. But most of people’s problems, in my experience, cannot be solved in any permanent way from the outside. Because we seek external solutions to internal problems. Most problems with debt cannot be permanently solved by giving someone money. They can only be solved by that person changing their relationship to money. Similarly, problems with alcohol cannot be solved except by changing one’s relationship with alcohol.
And the same is true of emotions. When we are in emotional crisis, some of us seek external validation, as a balm against having to look hard at our own natures. We beg people to be kind to us, to tell us that we’re good people. Getting that external validation is like a drug. It allows us to assuage our pain temporarily, and not address the real internal turmoil.
I don’t think we do anyone any favors by placating them that way. Just like I do no favors for an alcoholic by bailing him out of trouble he gets himself into drunk. Being of service, I think, means being willing to be there for a person who needs support while they do the things they need to do for themselves to solve their own problems. And it means showing them the way if I know it and they don’t. When they’re honestly willing to seek guidance.
So, I won’t bail someone out of jail when they’re arrested for drunk driving. But I will lead them through the steps if they’re willing to do the work. I won’t give someone money, but if they don’t know how to write a budget, I’d gladly offer to guide them. And sometimes, the best help we can give someone is Emersonian Girding. Simply saying “no”. Showing them that they’ll have to rely on themselves to get through whatever they’re going through. And that almost all of the time, humans are resilient.
It’s sad when we’re not. Sometimes, our problems are too great. And we don’t have the ability to deal with them. I’ve seen alcoholics die because of that. I’ve had friends kill themselves. I’ve had friends homeless. But there’s nothing I can do for them. Because sometimes, help doesn’t help. And it can drag us down with them. Into misery. Debt. Depression.
I knew an alcoholic, Jim, who worked a great program for alcoholism. He was humble and kind. Sober many years. But Jim couldn’t deal with his gambling problem. He gambled himself out of home and job. He stole the men’s meeting kitty and wagered it away. I haven’t seen him in more than a year. No one knows where he is. I wish I could help him. But he’s lost. In a way I can’t understand. Maybe he’ll come back from that. Maybe he won’t.
To be healthy, sober, and sane, I have to manage my own program first. I can’t do that if I am sacrificing my self to try to save others from themselves. People are on their own journeys. I can be of service when that service will truly aid someone. As long as someone is asking for help, instead of asking what they can do to help themselves, there is no service for me to provide.
But when someone needs what I can offer, I’ll walk through hell to provide it.