Untangling helpfulness

Once, I thought that all that was required to be helpful was to desire it. That is part of it, perhaps the better part, but it leaves something out. That something is knowing what the person you are trying to help needs.

Perhaps this was obvious to everyone except me, but helping someone and feeling that you are helpful are not the same thing. Once you decide that you want to be helpful, you come to the question of what will actually help.

An example from my own life is when I travelled to Uganda, knowing little about Ugandans, to help a non-profit by documenting some children so that they could be eligible to receive support through a program. 

There were obvious ways to help. Some didn't have enough food, or clean water. But I also remember being struck that they didn't need an American life or American things. They didn't need a car, or a TV, or a smartphone.

Ultimately, I don't think they even needed a program or money. They needed a way to provide for themselves, but they didn't need to be a business person. They would be satisfied as a farmer. They needed food, but they didn't need a change in cuisine. They like their cuisine. 

I know this is a simplistic story, but it taught me the lesson. Once we realize that we should help others to make them happy, not to make us happy, we have made a step closer to truth, but I do not think that is the full truth. 

We must not only admit that we do not get to choose what will help someone else, but neither do they! This is an unpopular idea in cultures that value individual freedom as the most sacred thing, but the truth is that we do not get to decide what is helpful for us, and neither do others.

At least, it certainly seems that we cannot change something that harms us into something that helps us by willing it. Whether something helps us or harms us seems to be quite independent of our opinion of it. 

This is an important idea because sometimes the thing that will help you will not be the thing that you want. Furthermore, you can harm someone by giving them what they want. If you are really trying to be helpful, you must consider what the other person needs, what will be good for them. That may or may not be the same thing as what you want personally or what they want personally. 

The question of what other people need or what would be good for them is not an easy one to answer. All I'm arguing here is that it is the important question to answer if you truly want to help someone.