Saturday, October 17, 2020

What is “Help”?

I don’t really know who suggested I read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” when I was a teenager.  It might have been my Dad.  I do remember conversations with him about the book.  My sister Kitty was also a fan.

One of my key takeaways from Rand’s writing was the idea of “self-care” being branded as “selfish”.  That somehow, those who had pursued a creative vision and amassed a certain success owed something to those who had sat back, not pursued their best, or made excuses with all the reasons that they were hobbled or victimized and therefore unable to advance themselves.  The rejection of this notion is what led Galt and his compadres to Colorado to create a community of creatives who pulled back from allowing society to be vampires of their work, effort, and contribution.  It was an extreme story line with all kinds of gaps, frankly.  The underlying message though rings true for me today and contributes to my desire to take 100% responsibility for the circumstances of my life and my part in all relationships, as well as to enjoy a life of good self-care, and to pursue creativity and adventure. 

And, it leaves me with a question… “What responsibility do I choose to take for those in need?”

Pondering this has led me to think about the idea of help and “What is helpful?”  I realize now that I have stepped in to help many people and groups in my life.  And, many times, they had not asked me for help.  Or, they didn’t ask for the help that I perceived they needed.  A story from 2006 sticks with me.

I’m in a village about 25 miles from Tamale, Ghana, which was a three day drive from the capital City of Accra on the south-facing coast of Western Africa.  I had met up with a friend from Los Angeles who was visiting a Peace Corps volunteer and looking at possibly funding an eco-tourism project in the region.

We stayed in a small compound with three mud huts.  Electricity service was on about 50% of the time, however cell phone reception was perfect.  There was no running water, but each compound had a 55-gallon drum that was filled each morning from the village well by the youngest members of the household.  Life was simple, pleasant, clean.

One morning, I asked Rahim (the teenaged houseboy for the Peace Corps volunteer) if I could accompany him to the well.  While at first he was reluctant, I persisted, and he agreed to have me tag along to observe the daily ritual.

What I saw was beautiful.

The young people of the community each carried containers to the well and while there played a dance of roles and connection.  The youngest of the young manned the manual pumps.  The older ones flirted with one another.  Everyone contributed in the end, and disbanded after a time to carry their containers back to their respective families.

While we were walking back, I noticed a standard American-Style water spigot sticking out of the ground beside the road.  “Rahim,” I asked, “What is that about?”

“Oh, that’s been there for 20 or 30 years.  Someone from America put in a water line from Tamale.”

“Wow,” I said with a puzzled expression.  He could sense my confusion and went on to say, “Oh, it doesn’t work.  It hasn’t worked for years.  We really never needed it, so no one cared about fixing it.”

Later, I connected some of the dots of Rahim’s explanation with others in the village.  And, it shifted the story in my mind of what communities on the African continent are really about, what is really needed, and the Western story of “help” that I had been exposed to throughout my life.  I realized that my perception of “help” often comes from my perceived solution for someone else’s life.  And, when I step in to provide my version of help, I often rob the individual or group involved of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own circumstances.  And that is 180 degrees opposite the desire in my own life and the lives of others.  Yikes!

So, how then shall I live? 

My posture today is to pull back a bit from those who in my perception are not “all in” in their own lives.  By “all in”, I mean, taking responsibility for their lives and their current circumstances, pursuing their best, seeking and creating stability and peace, before stirring up chaos and confusion.  This posture may put me at odds with some of the systemic cultural issues of our time and the long-term victimization of certain groups.  It may also put me at odds with those who have accepted or become dependent on my “help”.

And, it’s a place to start.  “What are your thoughts on Help?”





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