Lighthouses don’t go running around an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there, shining. -Annie Lamott
Many of us have an almost innate urge to help (read: save) others from toxic relationships, difficult life situations, destructive addictions or just simply themselves and their (in our humble opinion) faulty judgement. We want to give them much needed guidance and help to get back on the right path. I hate to admit that yours truly is no exception.
So why do we do it? The motives are of course plentiful and not all of them are based in an unhealthy desire to control our surroundings to fit our idea of what is right and good. Watching someone you care for facing difficulties can be truly painful and trying to help is often the most natural thing to do. But what do you do when the stray person declines your help? Do you just mind your own beeswax and get on with it?
Being at the receiving end of someone’s good intentions may not exactly be a confidence booster. We all want to proudly showcase that we are in control and to display the best possible façade we can (even though the cracks may be visible from space). After all, who likes to admit defeat? That they actually cannot do something alone? Receiving help gracefully is an art not mastered by the many.
But does someone’s refusal to accept your good assistance mean that you should just walk away? Leave them be?
Unless related by blood, walking away is perfectly OK in Chinese Confucian tradition. As a matter of fact, it is not just OK, it is the right thing to do and complies well with the Chinese attitude of not interfering with the internal affairs of others. By all means, observe it and talk about it. But get involved? Hell, no! What happens in other people’s houses, businesses or countries for that matter is their business. Not yours. Gossiping about it is however very much allowed.
In Catholicism however you are given a totally different licence to act. The Sin of Omission says that the bystander of injustice is as guilty as the perpetrator. Knowing the right thing to do and failing to do this is in other words not just morally questionable; it is in fact sinful. And helping someone, albeit unwilling, would probably be classified as the right thing to do by the righteous. That there in most cases exists no universal truth for what is right and wrong is of course highly irrelevant.
I don’t think that either of these extremes offers much help when it comes to helping the ones close to you if they don’t want your involvement. I think it is very important to be honest about one’s motives to do this. Who are you actually trying to help? Are you trying to help someone solve a problem or are you in fact trying to help yourself feel better about yourself? Are you trying to show yourself off as the saviour of unfortunate loved ones? That many people are trying to help others in order to avoid looking at their own problems may be a well known phenomenon. However, admitting that our unfortunate friends in fact are tools primarily used to deal with our own pain or boost our own egos may be hard for most of us.
Nobel Peace Price Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi once said “If you feel helpless – help someone”. Noble indeed, but seen in this context this excellent quote is not without its flaws. What is your motivation? Is it to actually make a positive difference in someone else’s life? Or is it to feel better about yourself? Really?
Many people’s noble intentions may be rejected by the recipient with the result that the generous helper may get upset, insulted or both. After all, we are only trying to help. Again, who is this really about?
This is where the metaphor of the lighthouse comes in and beautifully sums up what I believe to be the more loving approach. I believe that when someone you care for needs help, the only thing we can do is to gently and steadily put our hand out and let them know it’s there. That’s all. If they choose to grab onto it, then that’s wonderful. But if they don’t grab it right away or even push it away we can still keep it out there. Close enough for them to grab onto if they change their mind, but far enough away to give them space to find their own way. We don’t help people by forcing them to fit into our perfect picture. We help them by standing by them with compassion, not pity, as they face their own consequences, make their own experiences and paint their own picture of the world.
Loving our friends, family and partners only when they act the way we want them to, is not love. Loving them in spite of their human flaws is. We love them for who they actually are and not for whom we would rather have them be. This is unconditional love.
Till next time: Love before you help!