Are You Really Helping?

If I were to name the 10 most beautiful places I’ve been, I think five of them would be in Alaska. My husband and I spent a few years living there as youngish adults, and our oldest daughter took her first breath, ate her first Cheerios, and said her first words in that gorgeous state. It’s a huge place, and most of it is not accessible by road, so we left without seeing more than a small fraction of its beauty–but we saw enough to render us breathless on a regular basis.

Among the breathtaking places we got to see was a remote wilderness lodge deep in the Wrangell-St. Elias mountain region, an hour by plane (the only way to get there) from the nearest (tiny) town. It sits 100 miles from the nearest road, generates its own electricity, and delivers on its promise of raw and unspoiled wilderness for those wealthy enough to enjoy its comforts.

Well, we sure weren’t wealthy enough, but we got this rare opportunity anyway because my husband was a youth pastor in the same denomination claimed by the lodge’s owners. They generously invited the denomination’s ministry workers, from all over the state, to spend Thanksgiving (a time when they’re normally not hosting guests) at the lodge. Since our own families, while technically accessible by road, were thousands of miles away, we and several others took them up on it.

This was a rare opportunity, one we never could have paid for, and we deeply and thoroughly appreciated it. We spent time outdoors. We enjoyed great company. We heard incredible stories of adventure. We worshiped. And we enjoyed a lovely Thanksgiving meal, with homemade sourdough bread on the side. After we ate, we grew sleepy by the fireplace. But duty called and we got ourselves up to earn a bit of our keep and help clean up the kitchen.

We all wanted to be helpful, so we looked for things to do. I scraped plates. Someone scrubbed the pots and pans. My husband, Trevor, spotted a bowl on the counter, with the remains of something gooey left in the bottom. So he emptied it into the trash and plunked the bowl into the dishwasher.

Finally the kitchen was clean and we all felt the satisfaction of a job done well and thoroughly. We began making plans for the rest of our holiday–skating on the lake? board games by the fire? nap time? Then suddenly our contented planning was pierced by an odd noise, something that sounded like a mix between a wail of grief and a puzzled inquiry. But it was clearly laced with desperation.

It came from the kitchen.

We hurried back to the kitchen and peered in to find our hostess frantically looking for her precious sourdough starter. It was a rich, fermented mix that had been handed down to her from previous generations. It was a living project she had lovingly nurtured and kept alive for decades. It was the source of that lovely bread we had eaten with our Thanksgiving dinner, a unique gift she gave her guests, a link to her family far away. And as for many Alaskan cooks, it was a source of pride.

And it was gone.

It was in the trash, covered with table scraps and soaking into the garbage and beyond all hope of rescue. The bowl that had held it was in the dishwasher, almost clean. And Trevor, who had only wanted to help, was pale with the responsibility for what he had done.

Sometimes our best efforts to help only make things worse.

Sound familiar?

I think we’ve all been there. We don’t intend to hurt–we genuinely want to help. So we choose an action that seems like it would be helpful, and sometimes we don’t know that we’ve hurt someone until long after the job is done. Sometimes we never realize our heroic efforts have done the work of villains. If we knew beforehand, we would stop before we even got started.

But we can’t always know what results our actions will reap, and sometimes it’s worth the risk to leap before we look. But here’s one clue that can tell us whether we’re actually helping: Are we motivated to do what the other person needs, or are we helping just to make ourselves feel better?

I should tell you our hostess was OK in the long run; she made a plan to get another starter from someone in her family. And she didn’t make us go home early. But I think it’s possible she still regrets inviting us for Thanksgiving.

Even our best, most well-intended efforts to help can come up short. Sometimes what looks like chaos is the dawning of solution and inaction is the most helpful thing we can do. It’s best to find out what people really need before we jump in to help. And it’s best to approach life with enough humility to believe that we aren’t the best solution for everything.

Here’s a simple way to find out what people really need: ask. It’s not a foolproof solution; sometimes people don’t know what they need or don’t feel they can say it out loud. But it’s a start. And offering the help someone actually needs, just at the right time–that’s as beautiful and satisfying as a perfect loaf of homemade bread.

1 Comment
  1. Nancy says:

    Ouch, this was painful to read 🙂 Great illustration of an important principle!

© 2014 Amy Simpson.