As of this January I have been in the Inner-City Mission for one year. Anniversaries are a great opportunity to review the past year and plan for the next. Over the past year I have often been surprised, frustrated, inspired and challenged.
Having been a sponsor to many addicts in recovery over the past 25 years I have learned a great deal about what it means to be of help and what it means to cause harm through attempts to be 'helpful'. I have made many mistakes along the way through well meaning actions, intended to help but misguided by a lack of understanding what the true nature of help is. Some of my helpful actions have caused more harm than good to the person I desired to help.
I have come to realize that the actions that caused harm were actions that were based in me attempting to solve someone else's problem. Often the negative results of my efforts to help came when I was taking responsibility that was not mine for another persons actions, trying to solve a problem that included lessons the person needed. In essence helping the person avoid a valuable lesson, helping them in their attempts to get around and avoid hard lessons they needed.
I have come to realize that all of our lives are about us learning lessons from our current circumstance. As we learn the lesson our circumstance changes and we grow to gain her circumstances that have new lessons for us.
Our choices lead to consequences, these consequences become our circumstance, circumstance then becomes our teacher. When we attempt to change another's circumstance there is a possibility that we may be preventing the person we are trying to help from learning a lesson from their circumstance that they must have in order to be in new circumstance, in order to grow. This is where the line between helping and enabling lies. Are we helping a person grow or are we helping them avoid a lesson they need?
For example, if a person has problems managing money and they get behind in their bills as a result, simply paying their bills will only serve to allow the person to continue to mis-manage their money. Teaching that person to budget and helping them gain the skills needed to manage their money can help them learn the lesson that their circumstance is trying to teach them. Teaching them how to get their bills paid through budgeting and making appropriate financial choices is the lesson they need.
From the perspective of offering help, determining the success of ones effort in this situation is not in getting their bills paid, the success is demonstrated in how well the person was taught to manage their money and make sound financial choices. If the person was offered the education needed to get their bills paid and then refuses the lesson offered and the bill remain unpaid, the help offered was still successful in that the person was given the help they needed but, to no fault of the teacher, they ignored the lesson offered.
Success in missionary work and in providing any assistance to others may appear to be measurable in the outcomes but the truth is that the outcome is determined by how well the help is received. The person being helped will be successful in getting their bills paid if they receive the lesson well, the person trying to help succeeded before the bills get paid, they succeed at the time they offered good information and support in teaching how to budget and pay bills.
Often in my life I have sought to help others by solving their problems, but the truth is that more often than not, these efforts not only caused the person more harm but caused harm to our relationship.
One of my favorite quotes from recovery is from the pamphlet; What is the Narcotics Anonymous Program. It states, "We are not interested in what or how much you used or who your connections were, what you have done in the past, how much or how little you have, but only in what you want to do about your problem and how we can help."
I keep this quote close to my heart as I work with others - the problem is not mine to solve. My duty is to help others solve their problems, not solve them for them. I have done my part when I provide the help - at the point I have given the person the tool they need to learn from their circumstance I have succeeded, what they do with that tools is up to them.
Success in helping others is found in giving others the opportunity to make new choices, to offer them back full use of their agency (in the example above it would be in offering them the choice to pay their bills) once they have a choice, the outcome is determined by them according to how they use the agency they have been offered.
In helping others it is critical to remember that our Father in Heaven gave us agency and He respects our agency deeply. We must choose for ourselves and learn to live with the consequences of our choices.
In helping others we must always foster the agency of others we must do all we can to help others exercise their agency freely. We do not support or respect another's agency by solving their problems. We may feel like a success in the moment of resolution, but over time we will see that we have failed to be of real service as we have helped the person remain in their circumstance and limited their agency by helping them avoid the education they need to change their circumstance and continually live in the new circumstance they find themselves in.