How to Lend that Helping Hand

“Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.” ~ Horace Mann

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Walking down the aisle of the grocery, I noticed the older gentleman looking at an item clearly out of reach from where he sat in his chair. While my instinct is to jump to help, I’ve learned it isn’t always appreciated, so I stood with the question of whether to offer to help or to just mind my own business and assume he had someone with him. As I heard myself asking, “Could I help you reach that?” With a slight smile and shaking his head, he pointed to the item. I knew Horace Mann would agree that my choice was the right one. Doing nothing for that man would have been the undoing of myself.

Helping others isn’t a new idea for me. I was raised to be a helper and grew up to be a rescuer. Not everyone needs to be rescued, though, and frankly, it doesn’t help either of us. Most just need a little help or a hand. So, how do we do that? How do we know how to help someone else without trying to own their problems? It’s not as easy as we might think — does the person want to be helped? Are we equipped to offer the help they need?

Horace Mann understood the importance of a person’s being equipped for a job. He didn’t just have a good quote, he had great ideas for helping people, believing that one of the best ways to benefit people, was to provide them free public education taught by well-trained professional teachers. Having been the victim of untrained but well-meaning teachers, he saw how not only ineffective but dangerous the latter could be.

When we try to help someone, lending eggs to the neighbor who is in need is one thing, but trying to fix their car when we aren’t a mechanic is another. The same can be said for being a listening ear when a friend is having a bad day, but major issues like managing PTSD or ‘fixing’ a person’s bipolar issues is beyond the scope of a friend. As Mann noted, a well-trained professional is needed in these instances, just as in the person who will be teaching our children or teaching our own class or workshop.

First, we have to consider whether or not we’ve been asked to help, like with the man in the grocery. Sometimes, people need help and don’t know how to ask for it. At other times, people don’t ask for help because they don’t want it, perhaps because it leaves them feeling inferior. In those times, we have to decide if it’s worth the risk to offer our help. Then there are situations where someone clearly needs help and wants help, and we must decide how much assistance to offer. Helping and asking for help have many layers.

We won’t even know if someone is in need if we don’t engage, if we stay sequestered in our little bubble.

Asking for help means admitting first to ourselves that we aren’t able to handle something alone: a flat tire, a tax return, or reaching something on a high shelf. Just to be clear, there is nothing shameful about asking for help. Sometimes, we just get tired of doing it alone, and that is ok.

Offering help means being aware and being available. We give out of our abundance, or a better way is to say if you see someone needing help with something that’s a talent of yours, speak up. Notice if someone is sick and needs a meal (and you’re a good cook or can run by a restaurant), the mail picked up, or the yard mowed. Look around and notice if someone is sitting alone in a public setting — you don’t have to start a full conversation, but a smile and ‘hello’ can go a long way.

Remember Mann’s stipulation for education was that it’s necessary to have an appropriately trained professional. There are instances when we will want to help someone but simply do not have the training. Empathize and look for a professional who might be able to help. Hotlines and crisis centers can fill the gap where we cannot.

Often, I hear people remark that they aren’t going to get involved, it’s not their problem, but it costs little more than a few minutes of your time and energy that can be regained. Being willing to listen (and not repeat to others) is a great way to be a good helper. By our lack of willingness to do for someone else, are we causing the undoing of ourselves? In a world full of people, there is someone who could use a helping hand, and you and I are just the ones to offer to do for others and do for ourselves at the same time.

I still admire Horace Mann and his dedication to providing quality free public education, and I am thankful for the well-trained educators who continue to help students and parents today.

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