Helping Without Hurting

Here we are, working in one of the “helping professions.” People expect help from us; we expect to give help. However most “help,” I suspect, is hurtful.

Sometimes, but not often, helping actually does mean rescuing, fixing, taking charge. Mary is paralyzed, deep in depression, unable to see options. You help by saying in some way, “Mary, you need a doctor. I will make the appointment and go with you.” Or, someone is controlling the group that you are facilitating. So you say, “Joe, there are others who have not spoken. Let’s hear from them before you speak again.” Or in a crisis, you say, “We don’t have time to process this as we usually do. Lee, will you do this . . . Ellen, would you do that . . . and Eric, do you have time to check with . . . ?”

But most times requests for help and our impulse to help can be saboteurs to genuine helping. Co-dependence looms. “Helper” needs the “helpless;” the “helpless” needs the “helper.”

So what is genuine helping? Recently I was invited to join a healthy, redemptive example of helping. Roy, let’s call him, was struggling with a huge self-defining decision. He came to Jack for help. Jack suggested that Roy invite a few trusted friends to sit with him as he struggled with “what to do.” I was invited to join the small circle of five that met about every other week.

Here is what struck me about Jack’s helping. We began each time with a few minutes of silence that allowed me to get myself out of the way, namely, my desire to interpret, my tendency to offer solutions, my investment in Roy making a particular decision. I needed to be reminded that this is about him, not me. Then Jack, more by example than word, honored, without diminishing, Roy’s suffering. He invited us to be a holding circle, a space without judgment, without advising, without analysis, without fixing, offering instead a prayerful place of trust and not-knowing. Our occasional questions and mirroring kept the inner work with Roy. And work he did! After many months, Roy came to a clearness that empowered courageous action. From his suffering was birthed a Soulful clarity.

This experience reminds me of a question I carried with me as a pastor. When I was in a relationship where I was in the role of helper, particularly when there is no movement toward resolution, I found this question revealing: “Am I working harder than he/she/they are?” If so, I knew my needs—possibly the need to be needed or right or admired—were in the way of their inner work. Then, if I were having a mature moment, I would back off and hold the relationship in grace, asking curious questions, not giving answers, trusting their capacity to discern Spirit, Soul at work in their depths.

Are we not talking about “agape” love here?

4 Responses to Helping Without Hurting

  1. Ben Wagener says:

    Where I struggle at times as a pastor is your point in my NOT helping in my need to be needed, in by desire to be in control,or my drive to have my ideas adopted instead of waiting and questioning for a group or individual to work out their resolution(s) or call.
    Even as a parent I am continuing to learn how to let my children make some decisions that I think are not good for them but let them own their responsibility and direction.


  2. Joe Hoffman says:

    I find the question – am I working harder than the person I am trying to help – to be very insightful and helpful. I have also learned over time and practice that being more curious than helpful is often the best approach, and often helps me be less anxious. Thank you Mahan.


  3. Mahan. I like this for several reasons. 1) Just coming off of a semester of teaching Zen and Taoism, and each will say, in its own way, that the struggle that is worthy is a personal task first. Thus, I cannot “Do” (read, “meddle” or “tinker” with) anything that is not my own project.

    2) I think of a mother, of any gene pool, who must do what she does – alone – to give birth.

    When I have to control-freak someone’s birth or struggle, I guess it is I standing most in the need of prayer, with a spiritual problem.

    It is a privilege to be there “with”; to observe and be present without “doing” is not being lazy, but perhaps the more authentic – and longest remembered – form of ministry.


  4. Mahan says:

    Thanks for your comments, Marc, Ben and Joe. Looks like not “getting folks somewhere we think they ought to be” is a challenge we share. I like Marc you defining this as a spiritual issue. Reminds me of my friend, Ted’s word: vocation is for our conversion.



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