Recently, a very unhappy husband called me and bemoaned: “I tried my hardest to help my wife. She is so afraid to try anything new. I only want to help her become less scared.”
We describe the healthcare profession as a helping profession. I like to think in my life-coaching profession that I help others to create the outcomes in their lives they truly want.
For the past 13 years, I have been a member of a service club (Rotary) whose motto is “service above self.” I began to think of the differences between helping others and being of service to them or serving them.
Serving others is quite different from helping them. When you help someone, you are functioning from a position of greater power. You have information, a skill or abilities that the person you are helping does not. Your helping position is one of greater ability than theirs. It is a position of inequality. You are stronger than the person you are helping who has lesser strength. Others sense this unequal relationship. Being aware of this inequality helps you to understand why the fearful wife resents or rebels against the husband who is only trying to help her.
When I “help” someone else, I may be inadvertently diminishing their self-confidence, their belief in themselves or their self-esteem. Every nurse who has ever helped a patient has experienced the patient's resentment at being helped. Having someone help you roll over in bed does very little to build your confidence in your own ability to roll over. Some patient “helpers” become victims themselves of an angry patient's resistance to treatment, resistance to being fed, anger at being poked, jabbed or held down, even for their own good or safety.
Helping often incurs obligation. When you help somebody, they owe you one. Guilt is resentment over perceived and unwanted obligations. When I allow someone to help me, I might feel obligated to return the favor, and guilty if I don't. Helping others invites them to feel guilty as the recipient of your help.
Helping can also be controlling of others. If I attempt to fix somebody else through my helping, it implies judging them to be broken in some way and unable to fix themselves. Rachel Naomi Remen, medical director of Commonweal Cancer Help Program, writes: “In fixing, there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance.”
By contrast, service is a relationship between equals. It is mutual. I am benefited by the person I am serving. Serving is responding to and collaborating with one another.
Mother Teresa was the shining example of service. She connected with and involved herself with those she served. She did not attempt to fix them. Rather, she served them.
I believe healing others only occurs through the service we render to them. And in that service, we also are healed. It is in the relationship, the connection we have with those whom we serve, that any kind of healing occurs.
Many in the helping professions help without serving. Many others fix without serving. Spouses and parents try to help without realizing their helpfulness may not serve the best interests of the other.
Remen writes: “Service rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery that has an unknown purpose. When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life whole.”