True or False: If someone doesn’t want your help, you should leave him alone.
“As a child raised in an alcoholic home,” the message began, “I never learned the correct response to certain situations. I would not ask for help, and if offered help would often decline, afraid of the person’s motives.”
The True/False question above, which I posted recently on my Facebook page, elicited some highly interesting responses. As expected, most people thought it was true. It’s a central tenant of Seva work: Never, ever force your help on someone. In fact, many aid workers argue, if your help is not openly welcomed, you should leave the person alone. Why put yourself out for someone who’s ungrateful or unlikely to accept what you do for him? In the worst situations, you’ll only encourage him to continue his destructive habits or behavior.
But then I received that private message from a friend whom I’ll call Grace, the child of alcoholic parents.
Starved for support but too nervous to ask for it, Grace joined a church, where she basked briefly in the love and attention of her fellow worshippers. But the help they offered her came with a price. When she revealed that she didn’t share their beliefs, they turned their backs on her. “The help, support, and even friendships ended,” she wrote. “So who defines a cult?”
With substance abusers, her message continued, an offer of help “can be a matter of life or death. They may need to be confronted, as in an intervention.” Or they may need to be left alone to fall on their faces, with the hope that they’ll hit bottom and stop using. It’s a tricky and often hazardous line to hew.
Depressed people, too, may vehemently refuse help, even when they’re in danger of taking their lives. Someone who is suicidal may believe she doesn’t deserve to be helped. She deserves oblivion.
By now it’s probably clear that my Facebook post was a fishing expedition. I asked a trick question, and most people responded with the obvious choice. In the majority of cases, a True answer would have been correct. Offer help to those with whom you can work shoulder to shoulder.
But also consider this: We live in a society where it’s considered a little shameful to ask for help. We’re expected to stand on our own two feet whenever we’re able. Many of us, myself included, are reluctant to appear weak—i.e., in need of help. Far too often we go it alone and run straight into trouble.
How can you figure out what to do? The answer will differ in each situation. It must come to you instinctively—from your heart, from a quiet mind, or from your own form of meditation or prayer.
Grace had additional wisdom to offer: “At the very least, yes, offer help,” she wrote. “If declined once, offer again. If declined altogether, your smile or kind words may plant a seed of hope that they will later seek out.”
Another friend, Vanessa, suggested turning the tables. Ask people in trouble if they can give you some help. “Maybe they just need to be needed,” she wrote.
Hilary, a priest and old friend, wrote, “I don’t want or seek help. I need and welcome presence.”
To that I offer a hardy Amen. May I always remember that one of the greatest gifts I can give others is not the help I think they need, but a kind, listening presence. Together we can take it, or not, from there.