The Misapplication of Zeal

Last week I had the opportunity to assist my uncle (read: click play on his videos) as he led an ethics workshop for licensed social workers and therapists in Nashville. The workshop centered on the topic of self-determination: a client’s ability to exercise freedom and self-will in his/her own life and how that plays out in the context of a client/therapist relationship, one in which one party (the client) is seemingly leaning on the other (the therapist) for direction or support. (Say for example, should a practitioner be able to send a homeless client to a shelter if s/he doesn’t want to go? Or if an alcoholic client is unwilling to quit drinking but is willing to try other methods to control his drinking, should a practitioner who believes in abstinence-only therapy continue to push for abstinence?) As with most ethical debates, there was more gray than black and white.
 
The overarching theme the group continued returning to and that I found myself considering throughout the day was when does helping become meddling? I’m not a therapist or a social worker, nor do I work in any capacity where I am responsible for monitoring the care of another person. But I am a human being sharing space with other human beings. And this shared humanness, for me, comes with a sense of responsibility to, on some level, look out for others, help others, to be an active participant in the communities in which I choose to take part (which includes the community of humanity).
 
Where does helping end and meddling begin? Where have I conditioned myself into thinking I am saving others from themselves or that I am helping someone to avoid learning something the hard way? I think meddling is most times unintentional, that it comes from a good and true place, but the delivery comes out sideways. I have seen people in my life suffer from or struggle with some of the same things that have plagued me, and in my love for them and a desire to see them out of pain, I’ll want to offer up advice, or suggestions, or things I did “wrong” that they should avoid. Problem solved! But people don’t learn things the easy way or the hard way. They just learn them. My desire to fix, or assist, or divert trouble can be disruptive to someone else’s journey.
 
That doesn’t mean we are hands off in each other’s lives though. I think, however, it means being more thoughtful with what we share and less urgent in how we share it, avoiding what my uncle calls “the misapplication of zeal.” The more urgently I need to share my point of view, my opinion, my advice or “expertise,” the more I am meddling and not helping, the more I am denying you your right to your own experience no matter what my opinion of it is. When we meddle instead of help, there’s a part of ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) trying to assert control over a situation or push a conflict to its resolution. It’s okay to want to help. It’s great to want to help. But I need to ask myself does this person want my help? Or does he want the type of help I am offering? And if the answer is no, can I hold him in a place of compassion anyway? 
 
I try, although not always successfully, to work off the assumption that if someone has not asked for my opinion then he probably isn’t looking to hear it. But if I’m unclear on where I stand, I find it’s almost always okay to ask, “What would you like from me right now? To listen or to offer my thoughts?” That tends to cut meddling off at the pass and leaves everyone as equals. If the person is interested in hearing from me, then I stick to only sharing my experience. I can’t share what I don’t know (not that I haven’t tried before). What worked for me may not work for someone else. What didn’t work for me may work for someone else. If I don’t have any relevant experience to share, I can say that too. Not all questions need to be answered, or all problems need to be solved—at least not by me.
 
The territories of helping and meddling are riddled with gray areas. Mistakes are going to be made, boundaries are going to be crossed, more is going to be said when it could have been less, less when it could have been more. When we can meet people where they are instead of where we think they should be, we stay committed to hopefully learning something ourselves and to working towards being fellow students of life.