Knowing when and how to help

We all know the story of the guy who saved the fish by putting him in a nearby pond, but then that fish ate all the other fish in the pond, and when the owners of the pond found out what happened they killed the fish that was saved.  The moral of the story is it is not enough to just be compassionate, we need to have wisdom knowing whether our help is actually helpful and beneficial.  When we look at most of the challenges in the world today, how to respond to them often turns to this question of when and how to help so that our help doesn’t make things worse.

If we look at the debate between conservatives and liberals in the U.S., this is the fundamental question.  When we look at the debate on how to respond to the Eurozone crisis, this is the fundamental question.  When we look at the debates about how to raise responsible children, this is the fundamental question.  Therefore, understanding the nature of the problem and having an answer to this question is very important.

Imagine you are confronted with somebody who has a big problem because they have made wrong choices (be it Greece, a rebellious teenager, or people failing to succeed in the modern world).  How should we help this person?  One extreme is creating a moral hazard.  If we just solve the other person’s problems for them, then they never face the consequences of their wrong choices and are therefore never forced to learn to make correct choices.  If we always clean up their mess, they face no consequences and will know we will always be there to clean up their mess, so they will continue to make wrong choices again and again.  The other extreme is letting them drown.  If the harmful consequences of their wrong decisions are so severe that experiencing them actually decreases their capacity to be able to solve their own problems even if they choose to do so, then letting them drown and face the music condemns them.  They will likely give up trying because they know even if they did, they will still fail, and they will fall farther and farther down (blaming you along the way).

So what is the middle way?  It is show solidarity for capacity building.  This proceeds in several steps.

First, you need to distinguish between problems within their control versus problems outside of their control.  Ultimately, of course, from a karmic perspective everything that happens to us is the karmic result of our past actions, so you could say that everything is within our control.  But conventionally speaking, this is not the case in the short run.  In the short run, certain karmic seeds have already ripened and there is nothing we can do about it.  These are things that are outside of our control.  For example, if we have been born into a poor and dysfunctional family, karmically this is of course the result of our past actions, but for purposes of our life that karma has already ripened, and now we have to deal with it.  For problems outside of somebody’s control, as bodhisattvas there is no fault in doing whatever we can to mitigate against whatever external problems the person is facing all while holding them responsible for what they do have control over.  While the external circumstance is something they might not have control over, we should help the other person not use that external circumstance as an excuse to not try for the things they do have control over.

For the things that are within the control of the other person, the next step is to identify whether the other person is trying their best to dig themselves out of the hole they have fallen into.  How will we know if they are trying their best?  Usually, we just know.  We can tell.  There is no magic formula here, just go with your gut instinct and request wisdom blessings to know.

If the other person is trying their best, then you focus your help on equipping them with the tools and capacity to solve their own problems.  This is the classic, give a man a baguette you feed him for a day; teach a man to bake his own baguette’s, you feed him for life.  For a country, this may mean helping them rebuild their administrative and institutional capacity; for an unemployed person, this may mean retraining them in employable skills; for a struggling teenager, this may mean getting them a tutor.  But while they are retraining, yes, it is necessary to also feed them baguettes!  You can’t just teach him how to bake if he starves while he is learning to do so, you also need to feed him while he is learning.  Teaching people to stand on their own two feet, and indeed to enter into a virtuous cycle of self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating personal growth is the final goal.  How far should we go with this?  All the way to taking them to enlightenment.

If the other person is not trying their best, then things become more complicated.  The first thing you need to do is stop making excuses for them.  You need to refuse to assent to their narrative that all of their problems are because of other people or some external circumstance.  You need to help them identify which areas they do have control over, and you need to make very clear that they are responsible for those areas and if they fail in those areas, they have nobody to blame but themselves.  If you doing this fairly and with skill, inside they will know you are right even if externally they would never admit it to you.

The second thing you need to do is give them a warning.  You say, “look, I will stand by you to help you develop the skills and capacity you need to dig yourself out of your hold, but you need to do all the work – I can’t do it for you.  But if you choose to not do so, this is what the natural consequence of what your bad choice will be…”  Then you just explain to them how the world works and what will happen to them naturally in the world if they don’t do what they need to do.  For the country, this could mean them going bankrupt.  For the unemployed worker, this could mean them finding themselves on the street.  For the rebellious teenager, this could mean failing to graduate with all of the consequences.  You give them one more chance – saying next time you are not going to bail them out if, after your explaining to them the consequences, they continue to make the wrong choices.

Then, if they nonetheless make the wrong choice, you need to then not bail them out fully.  You bail them out only enough so that their capacity is not permanently destroyed by the consequences, but nothing more.  You don’t need to punish them, the world will do that for you naturally.  When they face the consequences of their bad choices, they will kick and scream and blame you, but this is just how the world works and the only way they will learn is by getting burned.  Again, I am not saying let them drown, but I am saying only prevent them from doing so completely.  Throughout this time, you should make clear that your offer of helping them dig themselves out always stands.

Allowing them to sufer the consequences of their wrong choices will often mean you yourself will have to experience some negative consequences, such as them blaming you or seeing them sufer or perhaps when they fall, they bring you down with them.  These consequences you just need to accept as the price of you helping the other person by not helping them (unless doing so destroys your capacity permanently, at which point the calculation is different).

If, despite facing the negative consequences of their wrong choices, the person still does not decide to start trying their best to dig themselves out, then there is little else you can do than pray for them.  You should continue to protect them from such extreme consequences that their facing them would permanently destroy their capacity to ever dig themselves out, but it may mean you having to watch them waste their life.  You should never stop requsting Dorje Shugden to arrage whatever conditions are perfect for them to attain enlightenment.  Request him to bless their minds so that whatever they are experiencing becomes a cause of their enlightenment.  Your offer to help them grow in capacity should always stand, but it might not be until future lives that you can execute on it.  During all of this time, you should request wisdom blessings to try better understand how you can break through to the other person, but nonetheless accept that at present there are things also beyond your control.  You can explain the way, but they must make the journey themselves.

Your turn:  Share some wisdom you have learned about knowing when and how to help others.

9 thoughts on “Knowing when and how to help

  1. Your reflections gave me so much to consider. I have spent several days this week wondering how to help my 19 year old son. It struck me how his dad and I represent both extremes when we try to tackle our concerns about the apparent lack of effort and direction in his life. I generally rush to defend him and his dad typically takes a harsher approach threatening to withhold financial support and so forth. I see now how I contribute to pushing his dads response to one extreme and the subsequent polarised dynamic that arises. Our son is away for a few days, time for me to do some correcting of the imbalances in my view. Guess I could draw more inner strength from increasing my reliance on The Guru, Deity and Protector.

    Thank you

    • And thank you for your comment. You have just revealed to me a very important dynamic I have never really thought of before, namely how parents tend to push each other into opposite extremes in dealing with the challenges of parenting. For myself, the more I see my partner on one extreme the more I have always gone even further into my extreme. This just makes my partner probably go even further into her extreme. The correct response, as you say, is to try to move towards the middle way (which is rarely a 50/50 compromise between two extremes. The middle way is usually some third way that captures the good of both sides without the faults of either side). The more I do move to the middle way, the more I create the space for my partner to likewise do the same. This is true in politics as well. Basically in every human domain. Thanks for sharing this, I really find it helpful. I love Sangha.

  2. As someone who does a lot of work with women in recovery for substance abuse, this is very sound advice, and precisely what I needed to read today. The key point for me is to ask whether the person I am attempting to help is trying their best to help themselves. Sometimes I forget to pay attention to that, and as a result, I am teaching them nothing but the fact that other people will always be there to clean up their messes for them. This is not truly helpful, even if the other person believes it is. Thank you.

  3. Just my opinion, i’m not trying to help: Some of this is good, some of this is not so good. But as I understand, you are not a professional helper or therapist but a Kadampa teacher who wants to improve his helping skills, this is to be admired and I rejoice in your efforts.

    • I understood it to suggest that there were elements of Ryan’s post that you considered to be at odds with the position that a Therapist might take. I was curious to know which bits they were.

      Have I misunderstood ?

      • Hi Manjushrigirl,

        Ryan’s helping style works for him and indeed a great number of people no less. This I constantly rejoice at. I will always be and am still his biggest fan without question. However, like brothers, we do not always agree. But I think it’s beneficial right now to just say this.

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