How Can I Help? vs. How Can I Help?

On my computer monitor at work I keep a Post-It note that says in all caps, "HOW CAN I HELP? I keep it there as a reminder to try to bring a spirit of service into everything I do. Conveniently, I work off two monitors so when my spirit swings to one, say, not of service, I can spin my chair to the other monitor to brood in peace without the nagging reminder to be a better, more helpful person. 

I keep this note not so much as a reminder to ask others, "How can I help?" but rather as a reminder to ask myself, "How can I help?" It's a subtle audience shift but seems to produce dramatically different outcomes. I have this theory about humans: the more we need help, the more we will struggle to articulate what it is we need that would actually help us.  

This can manifest in a variety of ways:
- As a crushing sense of being overwhelmed--There is too much to do/take on/consider/filter. (This happens to be my go-to.)
- As defiant unwillingness to accept help--I can do it all on my own. 
- As staggering confusion--What's going on? Where am I? What are we even talking about?
- As devastating denial--Everything is fine. (Cue wheels falling off.)

My thinking follows then that if we start by asking ourselves, "How can I help?" then we stand a far better chance of actually being of service to the person we are trying to help. Our minds are clear (relatively speaking). Our perspectives are different. But we so often shift the responsibility of service to the other person, the person suffering under the weight of his own struggle asking him, "How can I help?" and expecting him to tell us with great clarity, accuracy, and instruction what would be helpful. Our minds really just don't work that well under stress. 


Here's an example: during my senior year of college things were not good. I missed a lot of school, my grades were slipping, and I was self-managing my depression and anxiety. My mattress seemed to be permanently shaped into a sad little fetal position, a Kate-shaped hole. I asked my mom to come over one day because I was approaching a full-blown meltdown. When she arrived, she didn't say, "How can I help? What do you need me to do?" because my answer would have been, "I DON'T KNOW!!!!!" Instead she said, "I love you. It's going to get better. Let's make your bed and put some laundry away." And that's what we did. That wasn't going to fix whatever was going on, but it was a plan. It was motion, if not necessarily forward, at least not in the direction of chaos. It was action.

When we don't know what we need or how to ask for help, relief feels like a million miles away. It feels impossible, non-existent even. So I like this idea of trying to stay aware of opportunities to be helpful, of anticipating the needs of others (especially the ones for which they can't find the words), of providing relief to someone who thinks it doesn't exist. I want to give that to others because that's what I want most for myself when I inevitably find myself in a dark spot. We all deserve relief. 

That doesn't mean having all the answers or the perfect solution. It can mean let's do some laundry, let me run that errand for you, or how about you vent for as long as you need and I'll just listen. Help doesn't have to mean fixing. It can, and it's wonderful when it does, but it doesn't have to. Help can mean buying someone a little more time to allow for a solution to appear.

When we can step outside of ourselves and into a place of service, into a place of asking ourselves as often as possible, "How can I help?", we are really stepping into a place of compassion. We are practicing empathy. We are seeing a situation, a problem, the world through someone else's eyes. We are asking ourselves to imagine what relief or assistance we would want made available if the tables were turned.

The help we can provide from a place of compassion is that much more personal, that much more invested, that much more well thought out and intentional than when we just lob a, "Hey, how can I help?" at someone and hope that he says, "Don't worry about it. I've got it," so we're not inconvenienced any further but still get credit for having offered to help. 

This is a practice in building greater awareness, being a little more out of our own heads and a little more present to the lives and needs of others. When I'm thinking about how I can help someone else, I'm typically thinking less about how I can help myself. And oddly enough, the more I think about others, the more things tend to fall into place in my own life.