The art and etiquette of actually being helpful


Hand offering a daisyFrom Philip Patston’s blog:

I get a lot of people trying to help me. The less they know me the less helpful their help is. So it’s useful and interesting to make the distinction between ‘helping’ and ‘being helpful’. They are definitely not synonymous and are, so often, completely antithetical.

The most unhelpful help I am offered is getting my wheelchair in and out of my car. It’s quite a complex operation — getting it in involves neutralising the wheels, clipping the winch to the footplate, winching it up the 45° ramp and securing it on its platform in the car. And getting it out involves the reverse.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, many things can go wrong and cause potentially diasterous outcomes, including the chair coming unsecured in the car, which can result in 45 kg of chair rolling around the car or down the ramp at speed.

Yet many people, usually men, assume I am incompetent and believe that they are magically in the right place at the right time to save me from my incompetence. Hence, an irrefutable — and irrefusable — offer of unhelpful help ensues. Saying, “No thanks,” to these helpers is evidence that I am not only incompetent, but also unaware of it.

It’s an awkward state of affairs but I have become quite adept at withdrawing from the engagement and waiting until these helpers realise it it they that don’t know what they are doing. A simple, “It’s ok, I’ll sort it,” from me usually turns an active rescuer into a passive, unbelieving spectator, as I complete the task with unexpected agility.

It’s not always like this — but it’s rare when it isn’t. Last week offered me an unusual experience of truly helpful help — an examplar of the art and etiquette of actually being helpful — that I feel is worthy of being shared.

It was 5.30pm and raining. I had just returned from having a drink with a friend and colleague after work. The winter sunlight was dimming when a woman approached me with an umbrella.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

“Yes, fine thanks.” I prepared for her to protest that I wasn’t.

But no. “I guess you’ve got it down to a fine art.”

“Sure have!” Relief flooded over me.

“Let me just hold this umbrella for you.”

“Thanks,” I smiled. “Much appreciated.”

As her male companion approached, my heart sank. Too good to be true, I thought.

My umbrella-holder intervened. “He’s got it sorted.” I noticed, impressed, that he stood down immediately.

“Bloody Auckland weather,” I quipped to change the subject. The pair chuckled in agreement.

A couple of minutes later I rewarded their restraint by asking him to flip the ramp up and close the back door. I thanked them both and we bid each other farewell.

Driving home I reflected on the interaction with gratitude. It felt like a true moment of grace — a brief but profound interaction between strangers with an unusual understanding that being helpful has nothing to do with helping.

Rather, being helpful is far more simple yet potent: It’s about being there.

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2 thoughts on “The art and etiquette of actually being helpful

  1. What a touching story yet at the same time a powerful story. Thank you SO much for sharing this. I often want to “help” and “be helpful” and greatly appreciate your article.

    Simple human contact and a little kindness can mean a whole lot. Just someone being there in the rain holding an umbrella honoring your ability to manage loading seemed just the right help.

    You truly did reward them by giving them something that was helpful to do.

    My situation isolates me. My greatest need is human contact. I find it is the least offered “help”. I can manage pretty well, but I can’t make people understand my need for just conversation. They want to do other things instead.

    Informative voices like yours can change the world.

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