Why Do We Want to Help?
“No fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.”
The rule is simple, but abiding by it is hard work for people accustomed to straightening each other out as a way of life.
<when I introduced the rule at the start of a long-term circle>
someone blurted out, “Then what in heaven’s name are we going to do with each other for the next two years? You’ve just excluded the only things we know how to do!”
And that, as they say, is no joke, especially for those of us in the so-called helping professions, who sometimes act as if our entire reason for being is to set other people straight. I recently facilitated a session where one participant was so certain that another’s mortal soul depended on her advice
– rules be damned!-
that I had to ask her three times to cease and desist.
So what do we do in a circle of trust? We do what the people in Janet’s circle did: we speak our own truth; we listen receptively to the truth of others; we ask each other honest, open questions instead of giving counsel; and we offer each other the healing and empowering gifts of silence and laughter.
This way of being together is so countercultural that it requires clear explanation, steady practice, and gentle but firm enforcement by a facilitator who can keep us from reverting to business as usual.
But once we have experienced it, we want to take this way of being into other relationships,
from friendship and the family to the workplace and civic life.
If we are to embrace the spirit as well as the letter of the law that governs a circle of trust, we need to understand
the habit of fixing, saving, advising, and setting each other straight has such a powerful grip on our lives. There are times, of course, when that habit is benign, when what grips us is simple compassion. You have a problem, you share it with me, and wanting to help, I offer you counsel in the hope that it will be useful.
So far, so good.
But the deeper your issue goes, the less likely it is that my advice will be of any real value. I may know how to fix your car or help you write a paper, but I do not know how to salvage your failing career, repair your broken marriage, or save you from despair.
My answer to your deepest difficulties merely reflects
what I would do if I were you,
which I am not.
And even if I were your psychospiritual clone, my solution would be of little use to you unless it arose from within your soul and you claimed it as your own. In the face of our deepest questions-the kind we are invited to explore in circles of trust-our habit of advising each other reveals its shadow side.
If the shadow could speak its logic, I think it would say something like this:
“If you take my advice, you will surely solve your problem.
If you take my advice but fail to solve your problem, you did not try hard enough.
If you fail to take my advice, I did the best I could.
So I am covered.
No matter how things come out, I no longer need to worry about you or your vexing problem.”
The shadow behind the “fixes” we offer for issues that we cannot fix is, ironically, the desire to hold each other at bay. It is a strategy for
abandoning each other
while appearing to be concerned. Perhaps this explains why one of the most common laments of our time is that “no one really sees me, hears me, or understands me.”
How can we understand another when instead of
we rush to repair
that person in order to escape further involvement? The sense of isolation and invisibility that marks so many lives-not least the lives of young people, whom we constantly try to fix-is due in part to a mode of “helping” that allows us to dismiss each other. When you speak to me about your deepest questions,
you do not want to be fixed or saved:
*you want to be seen and heard,
*to have your truth acknowledged and honored.
If your problem is soul-deep, your soul alone knows what you need to do about it, and my presumptuous advice will only drive your soul back into the woods.
So the best service I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.
This is the second of three books I’ve read by this author, Parker J. Palmer.
The other two are: