Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Best Way to Help

A giant grouper at the Georgia Aquarium, seen ...Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday I talked with a friend of mine about her brother who was recently released from jail and is now living in a halfway house. My friend really wants to help him and feels like other family members are turning their backs on him. My friend thinks that the prison experience changed him and he is now ready to do things differently with his life. My friend wants to be positive and give her brother a second chance.

The question is, what is the best way to help?

Upon reflection after our conversation, I think is this the best advice on the subject:
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
What exactly does this mean? Here are three interpretations from Wikipedia:
  • Knowledge is the best charity.
  • To learn a lesson is a far better reward than to receive a gift.
  • It is better to know how to help yourself than to beg from others.
I've faced my own issues with wanting to help family members and I know I have gotten it wrong. My first impulse was to give them money or things to meet their needs. What I learned is that my charity prevented them from coming up with their own solutions to their problems. My charity created a dependence on me as the provider of quasi-solutions. What I have realized through these experiences is that the most helpful things I gave were suggestions about information, resources and referrals that helped them learn to help themselves.

I've also learned to divest myself from the outcome. If they chose to follow through on the suggestions and referrals I provide, well great. If they found the information I gave them helpful, that's wonderful. At the same time, I needed to firmly remind myself that they make their own choices in life and I needed to trust that they would find the answers to their questions if they just keep looking.

The truth is that if someone I love really wants to change their life, they will figure out a way to do it. All they really need from me is emotional support. Like a lighthouse in a storm, being a constant in their life while they weather their tempests is the best thing I can "do" for them.

For my friend, I realize that this whole prison episode in her brother's life has placed him in a new and different situation. It is all part of him dealing with the consequences of his actions. Now he has new challenges to face and he hasn't quite figured out how to deal with his new situation. He is asking for handouts now because he hasn't figured out how to meet his needs on his own yet.

I know this because my friend told me a story that shows her brother can tackle challenges. When they met for dinner over the past weekend, he told her how he used to scavenge in fountains for coins when he was homeless. He stated that he could collect $30 to $40 dollars a day doing this. Apparently he learned this skill from the group of homeless people who were his companions.

While not conventional (or legal), it shows that he is capable of being resourceful, learning from others and thinking outside the box. Seems to me if he really wants to change, he will figure out a way to do it. As my friend pointed out, he needed to be resourceful to live on the streets for as long as he did.

I know I wasn't able to convey this message in my conversation with my friend yesterday. I am sorry for this and will have to try again today. I hope I can help her see that all she needs to do is be there for her brother and support him while he learns to master whatever changes he wants to make in his life.

I think there is no better way to help another person than allowing them to figure things out for themselves.

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