The Delicate Art of Helping


I have always been a helper. I like to feel useful and to ease the way of other people if I can. As a child I helped my teachers and my family members (Not my sister, I don’t think. We fought more than helped each other, but Heaven help anyone who did anything hurtful to her.) When I grew up, I was always helpful at work, which, since I was usually the one in charge, didn’t do much to bolster my position of authority, but my co-workers seemed to like me pretty well. When I did have to do something authoritative it made it harder, that is they stopped liking me so much. And that was hard for me because above all, I wanted to be liked. I still do, but I’m not quite as attached to it as I once was.

When I became a teacher I had a huge opportunity to help people. Aside from teaching them, I bought groceries for families whose breadwinner was in jail, went out in the middle of the night to help bail a kid out of jail, attended funerals of kids who died in gang warfare, and gave money to their families. I wrote so many letters of recommendation, called colleges to convince them to admit students who I knew would make it but whose application didn’t look quite good enough, sponsored the student dance group and drove them to their performances, and the list goes on. I spent untold hours helping others in those first fifteen years or so. And I loved it, it nourished me somehow.

But eventually I stopped.

I still teach, and I still give as much of myself in the classroom as I can, but I know I have slowed down. My emotional investment is not as great as it once was.  It’s not that I don’t help, I do, in many ways. But the staying late and doing more and more, not so much now.  What changed?

I started teaching the year of the shooting at our school. I was a student teacher that year. I was trapped in my classroom with twenty-some kids for seven hours that day, and in the following days, weeks, months and even years my energy was completely dedicated to that school and its families. We had all been affected by this horror, and it bound us. The momentum of the event carried me along for a long time.  When my mentor died after about ten years of my being a teacher, I felt the responsibility to carry on for her. She was such an amazing woman and teacher, and she was my role model, the one I emulated.

After nearly fifteen years I was asked to take a job at the district office. I was torn, but honored to be asked, and the money was more, and somehow thinking I could help kids on a larger scale, I agreed to go. I left my classroom and went to do an uncertain job downtown. Unfortunately that job remained uncertain for two years, after which the position was terminated and I was headed back to the classroom. I was fine with that, despite feeling a little kicked around by broken promises.  The classroom I went to was in the middle school, where I didn’t really know anyone. It was a tough time because two schools were coming together and everyone was a little ouchy for a year or so. Coming from the District Office didn’t help me to be accepted by either group, especially because they assumed (wrongly) that I was still receiving an administrator’s salary.

And it was middle school. I had never taught twelve year-olds, never followed a pacing guide, never had an adopted curriculum and never taught the same group of kids for two periods at a time. Even though I taught ELD I tried to do what the other English teachers did because the alternative curriculum was so bad. Thus started a few years of just trying to find my way. Trying to determine what guidelines I could and could not follow, trying to prepare students for benchmark exams that had not been written with them in mind, teaching content I’d never taught in high school. I felt pretty overwhelmed. And it was all I could do to help myself get through the day. Honestly, I needed help. I can say that now, but at the time I couldn’t see it, nor could I have asked for it if I had.

I didn’t have the energy to be a helper when I so desperately needed help myself.

In this is the crux of the issue, I think. I’m a good helper. It makes me feel good, strong and competent. But I have a really hard time accepting help. I can’t ask for it, and if I do and I’m rejected, I take that personally, as though I wasn’t important enough to help. It could be that the person I asked had something important already scheduled, but their “no” resounds with me for far too long. I resolve never to ask them again.

A few months ago I found this quote somewhere: “If you cannot ask for and accept help without self-judgement, you are attaching judgement to helping.”  This is for me. I copied it into my planner and have been thinking about it for a few months now.  I think that giving help is the easy part. I just open up and hand out pieces of my heart to whoever needs it. But if  I can’t ask for and accept help without judging myself as inadequate, then my own helping others is not coming from a place of love. It is coming from a place of need. It’s still help, and it’s still given from the heart, but it is not neutral. It is a way of placing myself above someone else. I am a rock, I am an island, like that only not. None of us is that. We need each other, and being able to accept help from others is a skill far greater than that of simply helping.

My son tells me he is happy to help me, but he doesn’t know what I need help with. He says all I have to do is ask him. I say I think he should notice so I don’t have to ask. That is, of course, complete folly because how should he know which little thing I’m noticing today? It’s not like there’s a lack of things that need doing.  I think I’m going to practice this asking for help thing on him today, starting with the four pots of salvia I bought at the nursery this morning!


4 thoughts on “The Delicate Art of Helping

  1. Deanna Alexich says:

    Hi Lynn, helping is delicate, isn’t it? Your words struck home–and I am so touched to hear you humbly work through accepting help. I think good friendships are about that balance.First thing that pops up for me was about you helping me with my new camera, helping me to start a blog before I went to South Africa. You, the consummate supporter of photos, blogs, confidences. I so appreciate you, but I am looking forward to giving—making the time to do something with or even better, for you. Thanks again, for sharing. Sending love from the ocean side.

  2. lynnjake says:

    Thanks for your response, Deanna. I’m glad to have helped you with that – it was fun. Hey, maybe I help people so I’ll have friends. I hadn’t even thought of that aspect! Enjoy the beach. I hope to see you soon.

  3. dkzody says:

    Sometimes people think that those of us who are always helping don’t need help. Not true. Sometimes, too, it’s not a physical chore that needs to be done, but just to come along side the person and be there to provide some moral support. That’s where I find a real lacking in my relationships. Nor do I know how to ask for that kind of “help.”

  4. lynnjake says:

    I do know what you mean. I think that’s the hardest kind of help to ask for. Somehow we have gotten the idea that to need moral support or spiritual help is a sign of weakness. I suppose it’s the old Puritan stiff upper lip! That is really a feat to learn to ask for that help.

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