The holidays in the U.S. are a time when we are often called upon to help the “less fortunate.” While many of these efforts do indeed alleviate suffering and misery during the cold, difficult winter months, helping can have a sinister underbelly – control. In the guise of being helpful to others, we can really be trying to control their behavior to manage our own needs. Not surprisingly, this kind of helping often has unintended consequences or brings a different response from the “helpee” than the “helper” expects. Remember the last time you received unwanted advice, an unwelcome “gift” (sometimes with strings attached), or someone corrected your way of doing something? Could you feel their need for you or the situation to be different than it was? How did that feel? And, how can you be sure you are truly coming from a place of service if you answer the call of the season to reach out and help someone?
Along with his famous “Orders of Love,” Bert Hellinger put together a list of “Orders of Helping.” These insightful observations can help us distinguish between helping that is useful to the recipient, and helping that has a sneaky undertow of control. I’ll list these in this article. See where you stand in relation to the “Orders of Helping.”
First, helping comes from fullness. When we are full, we’re at peace with our families, we accept the world as it is, then our offerings are in tune with reality and have a good effect. They are appropriate for the real circumstances the recipient may find him or herself in. As Bert notes, we can only truly receive what we need. If, however, we have an emptiness inside, often an emotional need not filled in childhood that we seek to fill by helping, we are often covertly coming from a place of feeling “less than” ourselves. Helping from this place uses the “less fortunate” to enable us to feel “more fortunate” and “better than” someone else. It’s a seductive, if temporary, fix for the deeper emotional sense of lack or not feeling “good enough.” We need the “less fortunate” around so that we can feel better. This isn’t good for us, and robs those truly in need of their dignity.
Second, helping supports growth, life and respects the limits of fate. Helping from this place, gives what is truly needed – not more, not less – and honors the world as it is. The best place to make change is from a deep understanding and attunement with what is. The help offered from this place is appropriate and timely. Helping as a form of arguing with the world – that the world should not be as it is – often misses the mark. The U.S. has given billions to stamp out hunger or end poverty in other countries, often feeding the coffers of the rich in those countries. Rather than aligning and attuning with those in need, the “rich” country tries to change the “poor” country to fit its own image of how to live.
Third, helping is humble. This is a great way to check if “controlling” has snuck into your holiday helping. If helping makes you feel important or inflated, you are likely trying to change someone else to bolster your own sense of emotional need.
Fourth, helping supports the whole system. It should be obvious that helping one member of a family at the expense of the other members will not be successful in the long term. Giving a gift to one child of a family that has little cash for gifts and leaving out the others can leave lasting scars. Giving the parents a means to provide gifts for all of their children might be more effective than hanging a present on the tree for one child only. And, they are more likely to know what each child truly needs.
Fifth, helping is without judgment. “Improving” someone is not helping, it is criticizing. If instead you look for the strengths in a person or community you wish to serve you are more likely to find places to offer your support that have a good and lasting positive effect. And, those who receive such help are able to maintain their dignity.
Finally, helping brings balance. It is good for both the giver and the receiver, no one is made “less than” in the exchange. I remember a story told about the famous family therapist, Virginia Satir. She was told that “the poor” were worthless and could not help themselves, and no matter what program was tried, they would always be a drain on “society” (which society this is that does not include all of its citizens, I don’t know). She asked to meet with a group of these people and someone gathered a group together for her. She asked each person what they needed to move from receiving aid to being able to make a contribution, any contribution to their community. One person needed a repair to his car, another needed a part time baby-sitter to keep her job, a third needed repairs on her home, and so on. Then Virgina asked each person what their strengths were, what they could offer to the community. This was a new question and the members of the group had to consider it for a moment. One person tentatively said, I can do basic home repairs if you can give me a few simple tools. Another offered, I’m pretty handy with cars, especially older models. A third said, I have time in the afternoons to watch someone’s children and I like to do that. And so on. After a while it became clear that by offering their strengths to each other, they could contribute to the health and well-being of their community. Each had something to offer. The body language of the group went from being hunched, and “poor,” to heads lifting up, backs straightening. Virginia didn’t “help” anyone herself. She did, however, respect the actual circumstances and strengths of the people she served. In so doing, she was in tune with them, and was able to enable them to move forward together. Now I don’t know if this story is true, and it still inspires me. I hope that you are inspired to “help” this holiday season from a place of receiving – of listening with care, of respecting the dignity of the other, of seeking strengths rather than weakness.