In my younger days I lived in large cities and rode the bus for transportation. I was at a bus stop one day and there was a blind woman waiting with me. When the bus came, I went over to her and touched her arm, offering to help her onto the bus. She very gracefully told me that she was used to being blind and, really, the best way to offer help was for me to first ask if there was any help she needed. Here I thought I was being such a good samaritan, when I was actually committing an embarrassing social error! This was very humbling.
That lesson has stuck with me ever since. To jump in and assume that this woman was incapable just because she was blind was belittling her. It is not up to me to decide what other people’s needs are. It is actually quite selfish to act as though my need to help is more important than someone else’s need for autonomy. It is much better to take the time to meet the person on their own terms. As a mother and a nurse (both “helping” professions), I have had many opportunities to practice this kind of giving.
Recently, I have been the recipient of unskilled giving. Several people have marched onto my homestead in the woods demanding that I give them something to do, assuming that I must need their help. Do they think I am incapable? Do they think I would not ask if I needed help? Are they doing this to feel better about themselves? Fortunately, the woman at the bus stop was also a good role model for responding to these offers––with emotionally neutral grace and education. I am trying to practice this kind of compassion, too.