How To Help

Of course you want to help.

Of course you want to relieve other people of their suffering and difficulty where you can.

But it’s easy to confuse what’s actually, genuinely of help with what makes you feel better.

In other words, it’s easy to do what makes you at ease and then take your ease as proof that you must be doing good.

But being of help does not and cannot always feel that way.

Genuine helping is an act of vulnerability and courage and openness towards another. It requires you to give up all your demands that things turn out or feel a particular way. And to give up needing a particular kind of response from the other person. In real difficulty, it might involve you giving up knowing, or pretending to know, what to do at all.

Confusion over this, and of course your wish that others not feel pain, can lead you down some queasy paths. You reassure a friend facing a possibly life-threatening illness that everything will be alright. You ask someone who is grieving if they are ok, when ‘ok’ is the word furthest from their experience.

In your attempts at kindness, you end up missing the other’s simple deepest wish for connection: being seen and understood, their difficulty recognised for the suffering it is. Your kindness leaves them feeling more alone.

From speaking to others who have experience of this, and from an interlude of my own acute, frightening illness, it seems clear to me that the most compassionate and most helpful way you can speak to someone who is in difficulty of any kind is to first, simply, to ask them

“What is this like for you?”

And then listen. With every ounce of presence, openness and receptivity that you can muster. For as long as it takes for them to speak.

Allow yourself to hear something quite different from what you were hoping to hear.

And allow yourself to be changed by what they have to say.

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