constellational thinker. critical educator.

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On Offering Help to Others

I have been thinking a ton about ‘help’ lately, specifically as it relates to the help I have been offered throughout the first year in my doctoral program. More recent events have me thinking about help offered around one’s wellness.

I truly believe many of us have a desire to be helpful to others, both in small and significant ways. This comes from a generous and generative place. Throughout my first year in my Ph.D. program, many have offered me help, both generally and specifically. Whether as a sounding board of ideas, sharing cooking shared meals, or just physically being present with one another while we studied, I believe you cannot get through an experience like this without leaning on others.

Since the end of the semester, I have been reflecting on what has been particularly valuable about how others have offered me help. Throughout the program, many have said to me 'let me know how I can be helpful to you.' I often tell this to others as well. What I have reflected on more has been how this usually centers me as a helper rather than centering the person I am offering help to. In other words, in that particular utterance, I am making a well-intentioned move that requires the person needing help to come back to me.

For those of us who are deeply uncomfortable with 'bothering' people to help us, this is challenging. Especially for those who are often rendered as 'the strong friend,' it is important to know that people want to assist me while challenging to take up those offers. As I think about this past year, it has been beneficial when people have offered me specifics about what help they can and are willing to provide (e.g., I can help with laundry, I can write with you, I can be a listening ear, I can pick up your groceries). When offered specifics, I often found myself more reticent to take up one's suggestion. 

Especially when it comes to those with mental health concerns, it is less about help from nowhere and more about consistently checking in with those around me. It is about asking my friends and family how they are doing beyond a single question. Folks who are going through stuff do not often have the energy to reach out themselves; I have learned the hard way to reach out to people instead.

This is not to say that I must be a mind reader. What I am thinking about is asking ‘how can I be helpful?' or ‘what would be most helpful?' in addition to saying ‘let me know how I can be helpful.' What I am thinking about is in the absence of an answer to how I can be helpful, mainly when I notice those under stress, offering ideas of what I can do rather than having another person predict what I could do and be disappointed if I cannot be helpful in that way.

This is not a solution nor a magic bullet about offering help. It’s just one way I am thinking about how I invest in others and do the work of community building.

Alex Lange