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Help and Support

I'm back from a brilliant lunch with an old friend, and I have to share our findings. We discussed the difference between Help and Support. No etymology was involved, and you may switch the definitions if you like. We decided that, while Help and Support manifest the same behavior, they engender contrary expectations. When we Help, we look for positive results that reflect our efforts (change). When we Support, we risk a sort of no-questions-asked enabling. Much of the pain of life is attributable to the tremendous difficulty of deciding which to offer (Help or Support), and, just as important, how much of either we can afford.


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We are duty-bound to support some people: spouse and family. But one way (perhaps the best way) we can support them is to insist that we be allowed to help them, and, ideally, that they decide how best we can help them by asking for specific kinds of help.

I think of support as a statement about a relationship you have, a commitment you have to someone else. It is, and should be, much harder to elicit someone's support than to ask for help.

With a new baby in the house, I require a lot of both help and support. People who I know will support me are people who I can ask to help, again and again. I can even ask them to help and not be totally sure how I need them to help.

But there's a much wider set of people I can ask for help from: my neighbor (can you watch Ari for an hour?), the guy in the elevator (could you hold the door please?), friends (but not close friends: can you bring dinner when you stop by to see the baby?).

Another way to think about the difference: most people are happy to help if they don't have to think about what kind of help you need. People who support you are willing to think about how to help you. Enabling is something else altogether: 'helping' you in ways that are clearly counterproductive because they are unwilling to think about how best to help you, but want to 'be supportive'.

The level of support you can afford to provide to someone has nothing to do with whether you are 'enabling' them or not ; it's a function of what you have and what they need, not something broken about the relationship itself.

People are often reluctant to help.

"Get help!" is an expression used by someone who doesn't want to help. I have sometimes reluctantly listened to people's problems, knowing how to solve them but knowing they wouldn't listen.

But help can come from strange places. Years ago when I was a perfectionist student, I didn't believe I could finish a class. I wasn't "perfect," so I had to drop out. I left a note on a pile of papers outside the professor's door, saying I was too busy to do a good job and needed to drop the class.

A few minutes later someone ran after me. I turned and saw a long-haired guy I'd never spoken to.

"You know, that note you left sounds a little crazy. I would just finish the class."

I took his advice, and, though I never talked to my fellow-student again, always remembered what he'd done for me.

So sometimes one has to look to strangers for the best "help."

Late to the party here (I've been busy supporting someone), I see the distinction being between Helping, doing what you think, or maybe know (Kathy) what the other person needs; and Support, which is more passive, encouraging the other person at whatever their endeavor is at whatever level they are functioning -- or not functioning. The exception is Rescue, when it is clear someone is doing themselves harm or being harmed and you need to intervene. I think we are doing this most of the time with children, intervening and rescuing. With adults it's tricky, and has to be ceased once the person is out of harm's way. It is hard to support someone because that may involve allowing things to happen the consequences of which you see clearly and they do not, or cannot.

Here's an example: an elderly parent who insists on living alone. If the potential consequences are, say, a fall and a broken hip, the adult child may want to intervene and insist on a group home. But the parent may prize the life style and the potentially shorter life or hospitalization over safety and longevity. And the binary choice overlooks other solutions, like a Call Button and increased help in the home.

It's also important to consider that your idea may be mistaken or harmful in itself. You could be wrong or misguided or grossly subjective or fearful. (Ouch.) In that case, it is their path. Star Trek: Next Generation had a clear philosophy toward other societies along these lines. The shift in understanding that makes the difference is accepting that when we support one another, we also respect another person's journey, their growth, their stuckness, their bumbling, their late-to-the-party triumphs. It isn't our journey, it's theirs, and they get to make, as we do, their own mistakes, and learn from them or not. If we are compassionate listeners, reflectors, and occasional helpers along the way, we are offering perfect support.

Thank you for yours, Dear Friend.

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