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Nothing like moving highlights the need for the help of others. And I was blessed with an abundant portion. Both family (which included my daughter’s generous in-laws) and friends were supportive, contributing time, assistance, good wishes and even temporary housing. That help included the challenges in Ohio and the challenges in California. I had help at both sites of the move and it made all the difference. I even had the good fortune to have an honorable and big-hearted realtor. It was for me first of all another life lesson in gratitude, one that is recurrent but desired.

And for a piece of the process, I worked in tandem with my younger sister, Mary, both in Ohio and California. Together, I think we unearthed an array of additional and more nuanced life lessons about the human gesture of giving help and the equally complex gesture of accepting help. We did not set out with this as a goal, merely unearthed it as the process unfolded. Happily, since we share the “Beck Family Commitment” to find the humorous in every life event, a good deal of the time we ended up laughing as the final step in incorporating our lessons.

I was the third of eight in the Beck Tribe; Mary had the challenge of being the eighth. She is used to her older siblings assuming a certain advantage in the exchange of influence and power, and has learned to navigate this distortion with grace. Concurrently, she has refined her understanding of the limits of this assumption made by her siblings, quite specifically because they are all “older” than her which means quite old. Mary is the youngest among us and is 70. Youthfulness is not the primary coin of the realm in our negotiations as a tribe.

This aging of her elders and her ability to observe the impact of this aging has given Mary access to sparks of wisdom not necessarily available to everyone. She chronicles it well, and it became the “stuff” of our shared adventure in understanding “help”, since Mary finds herself often in this role of being the “helpful” sibling. So, while we jostled about sharing the work of the move, both the packing and the unpacking, we teased apart what we were learning about “help”.

I wanted the help; she wanted to be helpful. That was the easy part. The challenge was negotiating the helping process for both of us. We learned a lot. I am not sure how Mary would characterize the lessons; I am recording here the lesson most significant and apparent to me.

For me, the biggest lesson can be easily summarized as this: The most significant dimension in the giving and receiving of help among humans is the unacknowledged impact of its undertow of control. Said another way, the offer of help often carries an unstated assumption: “I am offering you my help, however I am assuming that I will do this helping my way”. It is my sense that this is so common people don’t even know that they are doing it. When the recipient of help is a person perceived as either older, vulnerable or more needy, the message intensifies in its insistence. Implicitly the message then becomes: “You actually no longer know what is best for you but I do; therefore, my help must be executed on my terms, in my way”.

To be clear, Mary did not pursue this line of reasoning, but together we observed it surrounding us every step of the way: a 70-year-old woman and an 80-year-old woman navigating a large and complex cross-country move. The most striking message we encountered was subtle doubt about our decisions or fear of impending disaster. Everyone had solutions, alternative choices to be made, warnings, opinions. It was not helpful.

Our humor often saved us, and when we differed, we discussed to resolution for the most part. I think Mary made a huge effort to be sure I could do things “my way” which was often not the same as “her way” simply because we shared an eye-witness account of the strange “help” dynamic all around us. Together, we refined our process of “helping” and I am most grateful for that.

I found myself repeatedly wondering how many aging people avoided doing things because this included “getting help” and they knew that whoever provided the help would assume that they were to determine “the way” it got done, to “control” the process. It was almost as if, having admitted the need for help, you acknowledged a personal limitation so enormous that it made it acceptable for the helpful other to do for you what they determined you could not do for yourself and to do it their way. If you have access to aging people in your life style, I believe what I am describing can be observed nearly daily if you pay attention as you go through the day.

It seemed to me that the frustration and dismissal of preferences could be enough to lead to inaction. In addition, if you were busy trying to manage your limitations, having someone take over your decisions based on your admission of a need for help could be devastating. I keep wondering about this.

Why can’t we help one another without insisting, albeit subtly, that if you get my help, you do it my way? What makes us so unaware of this message we are sending and its implications that the refusal to do it “my way” is viewed as a refusal of help or a denial of need? Why does the acknowledged need for help become the rationale for others “taking over” another person’s self-agency? Why is control so imperative? What does it say about a person’s insistence on being “helpful” that they must “control” the situation and the helped person must abdicate self-determination? How crazy is that?

I have become convinced that the most important lesson in all of this is how to “offer” help, or at least how I will strive to offer help. Currently, we usually offer a specific helpfulness. That stays the same. There is a second step however that I think we need to deliberately include in the offer: “What can I do to help and how would you like me to do it?” It is not enough to offer help; we need to clearly commit to provide help that is actually helpful to the other as they perceive it. And we then have to be willing to actually follow through. Creating a situation where another human has to deal with the frustration of an uninvited exercise of control over them is not help or helpful. All we really need to do to be helpful is make sure we do it “their way”.

“Help is the sunny side of control.”

- Annie Lamott -

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