When she fell down the cafeteria stairs, textbooks and papers flying, I watched from a chair on the first floor. Would someone help her? I scribbled some notes as she got up and walked around the corner. A few minutes later, we repeated the process.
My partner in this experiment for our social psychology class had a love for drama and a talent for staging realistic slip-and-falls. We were studying altruism – the contexts in which people are likely to be helpful (or not). Tip from the class: If you’re surrounded by passive gawkers when you need assistance, break the group’s trance by making eye contact with one person as you scream, “Help!”
Of course, most people who fall aren’t faking. Helping others feels good, and we all can think of times when we’ve helped or been helped.
Like any positive attribute, we can take it too far, and there are terms for such moments. No one wants to “enable” someone’s addictive behavior, for example. My own “codependent” tendencies, coupled with childhood training in the art of pleasing others, led to some comical business-limiting behaviors for this overly chatty consultant until a mentor stepped in. “Candace,” she said, “the way you talk is billable, and you need to stop it.”
Today, potential clients get one free 20-minute conversation.
Our urge to fix someone, or to carry our assistance into the realm of enabling an addiction, can turn us into “functional atheists.” Quaker author Parker Palmer introduced me not only to that term, but also to the idea that everyone has an inner teacher.
And somewhere beyond the warm stories of a friend, relative or stranger offering aid, benevolence can also reinforce an invisible divide between two people. In a subtle act of self-elevation, the instinct to help can morph into the urge to manage or control.
A goal of learning to be more present offers an entertaining and compassionate view of my own self-righteous impulses and their cost. Each time my mind editorializes about fellow hikers hypnotized by their phones instead of the beauty around us, my silent lectures rob me of that same pleasure.
Whether we place our faith in God or follow the Tao, such respect, when recognized, can override the impulse to intrude and advise. I’ve harvested a lot of my own inner wisdom by paying attention to what I think someone else needs to know.
Christians are observing “Holy Week,” marked with silence by many on Holy Saturday and the joy of resurrection on Easter Sunday. In Two Steps Forward, the second of a compelling, fictional series by Sharon Garlough Brown, a character refers to John 1, in which John the Baptist explains that he is not the Messiah. The character used the passage in the Christian Bible to discuss how pride and a focus on performance had distorted his work as a pastor. Performing closed his ears and heart to the meaning of the messages he shared.
Words are magical. I am grateful to authors and stories that invite me to reconsider my own life, relax a little and open to new possibilities.
When Fred (Mr.) Rogers quoted his mom’s advice about looking for helpers, he said he wished more news reports featured such stories. “When you look for the helpers, you know there’s hope.”
This is the wider lens of a resurrected faith in Love and people: When help is needed, the fingertips of God move gently through our human community.
May I hear the call to act, and the whisper to wait.