Should I Help?

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The bars were too far apart for him to reach the next one with his feet, and he hung there crying, feet thrashing the air.  Unfortunately, before his Dad got to him, he fell and hurt his ankle. Dad picked him up and carried him to the car, saying something about “the City should be sued for maintaining this hazard.”

Really? The first rule mothers taught me about playgrounds is, ‘Don’t put your kid up anyplace she can’t reach herself.’ Playgrounds are designed so children can get to things they can handle. If they want to go somewhere they can’t get to on their own, no matter how much they beg you, don’t help. If you do, don’t complain when they get hurt.

I try to keep the playground rule in mind. You can often do much harm trying to help. Giving and accepting help are great; they’re how life should work. To be truly helpful, though, there are skills and attitudes to learn and things to ask yourself before helping.

1 Do you understand the situation? We once had a 14-year old neighbor youth who had been sent from Chicago by his mother, to live with his father in SF because he was getting into trouble in at home.  He was a nice kid, but he hated San Francisco and would talk constantly about wanting to go home.

A couple of well-meaning neighbors got together and funded a ticket to Chicago for him, without telling his father or mother, and even took him to the bus station. The father was outraged and devastated, because he felt the child was in serious danger from the gangs in Chicago. Our neighborhood harmony was significantly damaged.  You have to be careful about when and how to help.

2 Does the person actually want help? The other day, I took in my neighbor Sheila and her two-year-old granddaughter Promyce for the day, because their apartment was being fumigated. I took the child to the park, and Grandma insisted on coming, though she can’t walk far because of emphysema. I was worried about her and kept asking if she was alright or if she needed go back.  I was trying to help.

At the playground, built specially for kids under 4, Promyce was having a great time. She rarely gets out because of Grandma’s disability.  Sheila hovered around her, not wanting to be out of arm’s reach, even though that required her being in the hot sun and moving more than I had ever seen her do.


I kept going over and asking, “Do you want to come in the shade?”  “Promyce will be fine without you,” and related comments, which Sheila ignored.

Finally, it dawned on me that I was doing the same thing to Sheila that she was doing to Promyce, offering help that wasn’t wanted.  I let go, and soon Sheila decided on her own to go back to the building and sit out on the deck. No big disaster, but we annoyed each other trying to give unnecessary help.

Sometimes, people may look bad but may like things the way they are. Always ask what they want before injecting yourself into their lives.

3 Are you the right person to help, or could someone else do it better?  Lucy, a friend of my partner Aisha, has been trying to take care of her 85-year-old mother partially demented mother, who still lives with her 92-year-old, healthy husband. The problem is that mother doesn’t approve of Lucy’s lifestyle and doesn’t want her around.  Though she cooks, cleans, and shops for them, both mother and father wind up agitated every time she comes over.  Finally, her father and brother felt they had to bar Lucy from the house.  Her parents needed help, but Lucy wasn’t the one to give it.

4 Do you know how to help?  Some people feel they have to open doors for my wheelchair, even if their body takes up the room I need to get through. Or they try to help me transfer by pulling on my arms, which are my only source of strength.  I have been injured or inconvenienced many times by people who thought they had to help me, but didn’t know how.


I’ve been on the other side of that, too. On our first date, Aisha asked if I could iron her blouse for her.  All I had ever ironed were handkerchiefs, and I told her I didn’t know how.  She told me anyone could do it and gave me a brief instruction, which I misunderstood. It was a polyester top, and I wound up melting it.  I said I was sorry. She laughed and said, “Well, you told me you didn’t know how. I should have believed you.”

5 Do you have the energy, time and attention to give this person what they need? Or do you come home tired and jump into helping someone with their homework or washing dishes someone else left? I often find myself listening to other people’s problems when I would be better off listening to music or taking a nap.

Remember the flight attendant mantra, “Put your own oxygen mask on first.”  You definitely don’t want to help when you resent it or feel burdened. People can tell, and they hate feeling responsible for your exhaustion.

So if you understand what’s needed, if you know how to do it right, if you’re up to it and the other person wants your help, give with enthusiasm and gratitude. Otherwise, you and they might be better off if you take care of yourself first.



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5 Responses to Should I Help?

  1. Linda Martin says:

    Great post as usual. Knowing when to try to help is sometimes very difficult. If trying to help is going to hurt me or make me resent doing it, I just try to take care of myself in most instances. Learned the hard way.

  2. Angelee says:

    Happy Gratitude Day David!
    I read most of your blog posts but rarely comment. Please know that I always appreciate your wisdom and storytelling style. I star them when they hit my inbox and save them for when I have a quiet moment to fully enjoy your words.
    With joy and warmth,

  3. Great wisdom here. Of course, there are certain areas of life where things are different. For example, if I take a fitness client and turn them loose in a gym, they’re almost certainly going to harm themselves. Gyms don’t work the same as playgrounds. And people have NO idea how to exercise safely. Weird, huh.

  4. Thank you, David, for writing about this compulsion to “help.”

    “Should I help?” really is the wisest of questions to ask here.

    I’m sharing your post with 1000+ mental health professionals who need to hear your wise words.

    I hope it drives traffic back to your website!

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