Wednesday, February 22, 2012

To Assist or Ignore? The Awkwardness of Helping Others

There is a man who works at my kids’ elementary school who has special needs.  I’ve never talked to him.  I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t even know his name.  He helps with some of the facility management at the school and even though I’ve often seen him riding around on his motorized scooter…I’ve never really had a reason to interact with him.

But today I did.

I was bringing the homework folders I had been working on in the hall into my daughter’s kindergarten class when his scooter suddenly stopped right outside her classroom door and seemed to be out of power.  I watched him fiddle with switches and work the key, but it was obvious that there was something wrong with it…at the very least its battery was dead.  I stood there behind him, waiting to see if he could get it started again and even though it was obvious to me that it wasn’t going to work, I did something that I’m pretty ashamed of.

I hesitated to help.

I didn’t know if he wanted my help.  I didn’t know if by offering my assistance…if that would embarrass him in some way.  I didn’t know if I would say something wrong when I offered and make us both feel uncomfortable. 

For a moment…I just didn’t know what needed to be done.

In that moment of hesitation, I watched in complete disbelief, as staff members passed by him in the hall, not even giving him a second glance.  Not one person that he worked with day in and day out checked to see if he was okay.  They went about their business, walking with purpose, and keeping their eyes averted from the problem.

I put down the basket I was carrying and asked if there was anything I could do.  His slurred speech made communication a little hard, but eventually, he got a hold of the forearm crutches he carried in the scooter and motioned for me to push the scooter down the hall, around the corner, and into a room that would get it out of the way.  And as I pushed, also trying to steer it at the same time, once again, we passed his coworkers, going about their days, talking about what they had done over the weekend and other insignificant things while I struggled with the scooter.  And he limped behind me on his crutches.

To say I was disappointed in this lack of…well…humanity…is an understatement.  How people could watch someone else struggle without even giving a thought to helping was unreal to me.  I was angry and judgmental and flat-out annoyed with the situation.

And then I had to remind myself that even though I had helped him…I had hesitated before I offered.

What is it about helping others that makes us feel so awkward?  You know…that moment of indecision we have before we move to help someone who clearly needs it?  I guess part of it is that we don’t know what to do, what to say, and what will make them feel better and we’re worried about feeling foolish or offensive.  And that emotional clumsiness comes whether we know the person or not.  I have the same insecurities about helping a stranger as I do a friend.  And the truth is…it’s a hell of a lot easier to walk away and keep your eyes away from the problem than it is to walk up to it and boldly try to help.

But as I left the school this morning, I decided something:  It’s better to offer to help and risk embarrassment or an uneasy moment rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.  And many times it’s better to accept that offer, however clumsy it might be, rather than struggle with the problem alone.

I may have dented a few walls this morning, trying to get that man and his scooter down the hall.

But at least I didn’t just walk on by.


  1. Really fabulous post - thank you. Your words reminded me of times I have hesitated to help ... and provided me with a little compassion and understanding for those who I felt ignored me during my husband's cancer battle and death. "Do unto others ...."

    1. Thank you! You totally got it. I have a lot of compassion for the people who tried to help me...even when they said the wrong thing. Their intentions were good and they tried and many times...that's what really matters.

  2. Outstanding post ~ excellent food for thought! Thank you SO much for saying this, Catherine! ♥

  3. Sometimes hesitation gives us an opportunity to reflect, not only on our motives for wanting to help, but also, to stand back and ask, would intervening help or hurt? Those of us who are without disability have a hard time asking for help, but mostly love it when people offer it. By the same token, people whose independence is compromised sometimes are better at asking for help, and are irritated by help offered as if they are incapable (this includes aging parents, I might add). I make this comment after most of my life in the helping profession, and the people who taught me what I needed to know about humility, interference, and asking permission, the MRDD folks I worked with while I was in college who were determined to be as independent as possible (well, most of them). I still carry with me all I learned from them: love unconditionally when you can, hug as many people as will let you, and nothing, absolutely nothing about being human is gross or disgusting except when we set ourselves apart from those we perceive as "less able." Just my thought.

    1. Thank you for your insight! That was exactly my concern...I didn't want to offer if it would make this person uncomfortable in any way. But it also made me think about my own situation and the situations of the widows around me: We are often upset that people don't help more, but they may be having that "moment of awkwardness" because they don't know what to do or say. And rather than take the chance of making us feel uncomfortable...they do nothing at all.

      Thanks for your comment! So true!

  4. This was such an awesome post! You really made some great points - do we wait because we're uncomfortable or because we don't want to make them uncomfortable? Thanks for the "food for thought".