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It's so hard to find good help

Sat 21 Nov 2020 by mskala Tags used:

Your friend Andy tells you that he's planning to move to a new apartment next Saturday, and asks you to help. How do you help Andy? Maybe you'll show up at the old place on Saturday, help him load boxes onto the truck, and unload them at the new place. Helping Andy means participating in the achievement of his goal - actually doing some of the work yourself so that he doesn't have to.

Your friend Barbara tells you that she's planning to secure her PHP installation next Saturday. How do you help Barbara? Unless you're already involved in administering her servers, you're probably not going to log into them and start issuing commands as root; that would be inappropriate. More likely you'll direct her to instructional resources from which she can learn about common pitfalls, the steps that need to be completed for the different tasks involved, and so on. Helping Barbara doesn't mean participating in the achievement of her goal, but enabling her to do it herself. She will still end up doing all of the work.

Your friend Charlie tells you that he's planning to kill himself next Saturday.

How do you help Charlie? Well, you're probably not going to show up at his door with a sawed-off shotgun on Saturday and shoot him in the face when he answers. That would be participating in the achievement of the stated goal, helping Charlie just the same way you would help Andy... but most of us would consider it far beyond inappropriate.

You're also probably not going to help Charlie the way you would help Barbara, not by directing him to instructional resources on methods for killing himself, nor by simply handing him the weapon. You're not going to enable the achievement of the stated goal, not even indirectly, not even if he's still going to do all the work himself.

Instead, most likely you're going to treat Charlie's stated goal as a symptom of mental illness - the desire being a problem in itself that needs to be solved as a high priority - and you'll attempt to "help" him no longer have that desire, most likely by offering some kind of psychiatric counselling. "Helping" Charlie means, by all means, preventing him from doing what he said he intended to do.

By now the word "help" has made a complete 180-degree turn. Helping one friend means your doing real work to cause the goal to be achieved more easily, or at all. Helping the second friend is indirect - you don't actually do any of the work, she still has to do it all - but you still feel that you've helped because you were part of the chain of causes leading to the achievement of the goal. But "helping" the third friend is the opposite action: you're obligated to actively interfere with the achievement of his stated goal. "Helping" Charlie is the opposite of literally helping.

What if you offer that same kind of anti-help to Andy? If he tells you he's planning to move to a new apartment, that's a perfectly ordinary and non-pathological thing that many people do as part of their normal lives. But what if you perceive it as a mental health emergency and you offer him cognitive behavioural therapy to help him transform himself into the kind of person who doesn't have the symptom of planning to move to a new apartment? At that point it's no longer Andy who is several boxes short of a truckload. You've lost touch with reality yourself. At best, you come across as refusing to help, in a strange and complicated way.

"Dude, if you can't help me move because you've got other plans for that day, you could just say so!"

But even offering to help Andy in the indirect but less obstructive way that you might help Barbara, would be inappropriate, rude, and not a good way to treat a friend. You don't help Andy by just telling him how to pick up boxes and load them onto a truck, except maybe in some very special circumstance where you have expert knowledge about technical details of that process which you know he doesn't have and could benefit from. In the ordinary case, Andy wasn't asking for your advice on the subject of moving, he was asking you to show up and participate, doing some of the work yourself. Helping him isn't helpful if it still leaves him with just as many boxes that he has to pick up and load himself. And substituting advice for direct participation is, again, not help but a weird indirect way of refusing the request.

If someone asks for your help then you'd better know which kind of help is appropriate to the situation; all the more so if they didn't ask and you are offering your "help" unsolicited.

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