For more than thirty years I taught people preparing to be counselors. Counseling is considered to be one of the helping professions. I have therefore had a lot of time to think about helping. What does it mean to help someone – and what does it mean not to help someone. They go together, of course, as most people discover sooner or later. The word help strikes me as belonging more to Buber’s I-Thou relationship, (assuming I have grasped Buber) than altruism because the other cannot remain detached from the evaluation of my acts and because help is always an action. The other gets to weigh in on whether it was a help and on how much help I was.
Help cuts about as close to the bone of what it means to be human as any subject I can think of. We are, almost by definition and certainly from the beginning of our lives, creatures who require a lot of help. We are born dependent on others to live. Therefore it strikes me as odd that “sucking” has become a bad word. Teachers suck, you suck, the world sucks, are terms I have heard from young and adult alike. But sucking is good. Sucking is how we come into the world and how we are sustained – first, sucking air, then sucking milk. How did this nurturing behavior (help) get such a slanderous reputation?
I have the sense it’s because sucking has come to mean that you are attached to something or someone other than yourself and therefore not functioning at optimal self-sufficiency – you’re suffering from a disease called dependency. You do realize this is nonsense! All of have dependent needs, and seeking help to fulfill them isn’t a disease. We are not always number one and doing our own thing; sometimes we’re sick and afraid and would like someone else to paddle our canoe. Feeling dependent is part of being human: that’s how we come into the world, and hopefully, it’s how we get out. Dependency is different from the neurotic condition of codependency, in which you submerge all your needs to fulfill someone else’s.
Everybody is dependent because nobody makes it alone. That’s why we all have belly buttons – to remind us that we were once attached to and dependent on someone other than ourselves. Our ability to give and receive help may be our best alternative for defining humankind. The poet Goethe seemed to think so:
Noble let man be,
Helpful and good!
For that alone
From all beings
That we know of.
The centrality of help to human nature is expressed in the biblical story of our human origin. Eve is created as “an help meet,” to use the English of the King James Bible, which in 1611 meant “a fit helper.” Popular usage has tended to misquote this as “helpmate.” Since Eve is fit to help Adam, we have to assume that he must also be fit to help her. He too seems to have been created to help. He helps the Creator by giving the animals their names, and a chapter before he is cursed with the punishment of toil, he is blessed with the work of tending to the Garden of Eden.
Our pagan ancestors, who built great bonfires on the tops of hills to help the sun rekindle its warmth at the winter solstice, were thinking along the same lines. We tell ourselves we have grown out of such nonsense. We have now “developed” to a stage where, if we refuse to help nurture each other, we not only will cease to be human, we will cease to be.
No less than we use help to define the human, we use help to invoke the divine. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth,” says one of the psalms. “Heaven help us!” we pray; “God help you!” we threaten, invoking help even for those we should like to kick. God is love according to the Scriptures, but it would seem that love, whether human or divine, is help. The medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich says in her Revelation of Divine Love, “I say that for us [God] is everything that is good and comforting and helpful.”
Then too we discovered that we could refuse help. We could insist on accomplishing something by ourselves – “By self!” – though this insistence did not automatically mean (yet another epiphany) that we could actually do it by ourselves. Surely the revelation of our abilities to receive, give, and refuse help are among the most exciting and, shall we say, messy developments in the life of a young child. When we came to understand our needs and our desires in relationship to those people we could count on to meet them we were growing up (maturing), there followed the heady discovery that this helping business could be a reciprocal deal, that patty-cake wasn’t just a game; it was a demonstration of torah. The desperate cry of “Mommy, help!” could be turned into “Help Mommy.”
Help is like the swinging door of human experience: “I can help!” we exclaim and go toddling into the sunshine; “I was no help at all,” we mutter and go shuffling to our graves. On the other hand, a sense of impending mortality has the potential to make us more compassionate. “I shall pass this way but once” and all the rest of that, so I ought to be as helpful as I can. I want to have made a difference.
“Teach us to care and not to care,” T. S. Eliot prays in his poem “Ash Wednesday.” Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to be taught – or teach others – not to care. But I should like to learn when caring comes down to an honest appreciation of those creatures and persons who flourish without my help. In short, I should like to learn to be more humble. Run the roads with Eliot’s line, and it reads something like this: “Teach us to stop at the scene of accidents, and teach us to drive straight by.” Teach us to keep out of the way of the ambulance crews.
It is the nature of us all to be selfish and want to put our own needs and desires before others. The Bible gives clear direction however on our need to give glory to God by helping others. We are to love as He loved us. He is “our help in ages past.”
I would leave you with two verses from the Bible, one from Paul and one from our Lord for your consideration in being a helper.
“Carry each other’s burdens; that’s the way to fulfill the Messiah’s law” (Galatians 6:2).
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come here, you people who my father has blessed. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world! Why? Because I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome. I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you looked after Me; I was in prison and you came to me’” (Matthew 25”34. 35).