Hand-up or Hand-out?
Or, to put it another way ”What you do for me without me, you do to me.” Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi had such a knack of saying a whole lot in very few words, and this is one example. It is a point that those of us in the self-help, personal growth and counseling fields need to take very seriously, but also applies to parents, teachers, and anyone who has skills that others need. It echoes, slightly more enigmatically, the old “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you teach him for the rest of his life.” Apart from my occasional rebellious question as to whether anyone ever considers whether to teach a woman to fish, each statement echoes the other.
Whether we are working with children, with those who are in need, or with people who do not have skills that we have mastered, most of us want to help people. We want to help people so that they can grow and become self-sufficient. Yet, all too often, the help that is given is a temporary fix rather than something that encourages growth. In fact, helping someone while they stand helplessly back and watch may well convey the message that they are helpless and need someone else to look after them. It can be unempowering. We want to provide stepping stones, but instead the message that they are helpless to help themselves may become a stumbling block.
People do not learn from watching nearly as well – if at all – as from doing. Of course it takes longer, and more effort, to tell someone how to do something, to guide their actions and give them feedback, than it does to do the darn thing ourselves! So, unfortunately, we tend to do for, rather than do with.
My neighbor is a brilliant “fix-it” person, and always willing to help. I have noticed that he “does it right.” He does what I, at five foot two inches, cannot do either for matters of height or of strength. When that is out of the way he hands things back to me and, if needed, tells me how to do it, but I have to be active in the process. When I installed a motion detector light over my garage door, part of what was needed was out of my reach. He promptly did what I could not, but then handed the tools back to me to continue the task. I’m not sure if I felt more empowered because I learned something, or because I had been an active part of the project rather than a helpless bystander. I think it was the latter.
Of course we have to have a balance. While I am saying that taking over and fixing everything can be un-empowering, on the other hand standing back and saying that people must do something for themselves when they are incapable of doing so is not helpful. Leaving me to install my own light over the garage door would not have helped me to grow a few more inches. I believe the balance lies right there – where the help offered is for what the individual cannot do, but that they are expected to participate as well.
Habitat for Humanity has that down pat, truly living out their slogan “A hand up not a hand out.” The organization organizes and leads, but the anticipated owners of the house must contribute many hours of work, under supervision where necessary and learning many skills as they go, in order to earn the right to move in.
I suspect that those of us who “do for” rather than “do with” may get a quiet charge of virtuosity when we consider how much we do for others – but then… are we doing it for them or for ourselves?
I also suspect that the one thing that people really need is to be empowered by our acknowledgement that they are capable of “doing with,” even if it only involves tightening a couple of screws, as with my garage light.
Do you do for? Or do you do with? If the former… would you consider bring your “helpees” on board, just a little? You will not be giving them less, but more.
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