Do people we ‘help’ actually want or need our help?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 20, 2008

We’ve all heard the story of the Boy Scout helping an elderly woman across the street. Nice gesture, eh? Only, the whole way, she’s dragging her feet and screaming, “But I don’t want to cross the street!”

I received so many responses to last week’s column on treating members of identifiable groups as pet projects, that I’m returning to the topic this week.

Basic human compassion demands that we ask ourselves: When is it helpful to be “helpful”? What changes need to be made when it’s more important for the helper to be helping than it is for the helped to be helped?

One of the services offered by Cochrane’s Nan Boothby Memorial Library is their circulation of books on CDs. My wife, Mary Anna, often takes advantage of this service as she prepares for lengthy automobile trips she and I take from time to time – or even just for jaunts into Calgary.

Recently she took out a CD of Alan Alda (of TV’s “M*A*S*H” fame) reading his insightful 2007 book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself. His words on the intriguing experiences of life were so good, we bought our own copy of the book.

Amidst anecdotes of his starts and stumbles into a truly amazing acting career, he shares snippets from school commencement addresses he’s delivered. He concludes the book with one he delivered at Southampton College in Long Island in 2003.

Alda listed for his audience three essentials for making “the most of whatever comes your way.” The first essential was to make someone happy, to be an agent of good humour. The third was to keep score your own way, and not to be intimidated by the measuring sticks of others.

It was his second essential that really caught my attention, however. “Find out how you can be helpful,” he said. “Being helpful assumes that the people you help actually want your help. And that you know enough to actually be of help and not make life worse for them than it already is.”

Along this very line, coffee companion Helen Diemert responded to last week’s column:

“What interested me is the exposure of do-gooders who take pride in their donations without realizing that they may actually intensify the disparities between the haves and have-nots. There is a subtle but real difference in approaching others with either denigration or respect. If we don't treat everyone with the dignity that each human being deserves, our charities may backfire.

“I believe that one can achieve more effectiveness, admiration and emulation by being a model of goodness than by perpetrating good works onto the oppressed. We must ask ourselves how to improve circumstances by changing the conditions and environments of the less fortunate rather than by imposing our ideas and actions directly onto them. Instead of creating dependencies, we ought be liberating and equalizing all people.”

On a somewhat different tack, Edmonton coffee companion Barbara Stevens, wheelchair-bound for many years, responded that at the heart of the problem are stereotyping and the patronizing attitude of those who presume to know what’s best for others, though they’ve never walked a mile in their moccasins.

There was the time Barbara was touring the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, for example. She was outside with her friend Berna when her wheelchair got stuck in loose gravel. “We were both laughing at the situation, but our smiles soon faded. Some other tourists were walking past and one said, ‘That is disgusting. People like her shouldn’t be laughing like that.’ Berna and I looked at each other and then laughed even louder. Am I not supposed to have a sense of humour?”

Less humourous are those times when she’s in a restaurant with her husband, Leonard, and the server, ignoring her, asks Leonard, “What does she want?” Barbara wrote, “I politely inform them that I can answer for myself,” and during the meal she tries to educate serving staff on how to deal with physically-challenged people.

“I wasn’t born this way, and my heart aches for those who have had a lifetime of being pre-judged for their ethnicity and physical differences. The outside world can be a cruel one at times, yet my being at soccer games, kart races, and so on, has shown friends of our grandchildren that I am a grandmother and mother first of all, and that being in a wheelchair has nothing at all to do with who I really am.”

There is a flipside to this question, of course. I still remember the time many years ago when a junior high student asked me to help him with his math homework. He set his assignment in front of me and after a few minutes asked if I was going to get busy and answer the questions. I reminded him that he had asked me to help him do the homework, not to do it for him.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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