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How to Help

When Help is Unwanted

The hardest problems to solve are usually the ones we want to keep.

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Photo by Matteo Raw on Unsplash

I’ve been laying the groundwork for a new project collecting “helping experiences.” Our hope is that we can start to better understand the multitude of ways we try to help one another. Helping is in our nature, but there’s still so much about helping that we don’t understand.

One common feature of helping experiences is that they’re often imbalanced. Givers and receivers of help typically see things very differently. For example, you’ve probably had the experience where someone’s kindness was monumental to you, and yet they probably don’t even remember the help they gave. This is just one of the ways the experience differs so much for those involved.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching imbalance is when the person offering help is rebuffed by the person who really needs it. Parents perhaps feel this most keenly. In Episode 2 of the How to Help Podcast, Dr. Marsh shared in our interview that kids who have been diagnosed with psychopathy are extremely difficult to help because they are incapable of seeing their own failings. She said:

I've worked with teenagers who have been thrown out of multiple schools and their parents were afraid of them. They didn't have any friends and they'd been in detention many times. The question we've asked all the kids we work with is how would you rate yourself overall on a scale from one to 10. [These kids] would routinely answer…at a 10 or at 11.

Not that they don't have any good traits, because they all do. They all have lots of good traits, but things are not going well. And the problem is, if somebody doesn't feel that room for
improvement in themselves, then they will not be motivated to do any therapy to change themselves.

It doesn’t take a psychopathy diagnosis for any of use to refuse help, whether it’s out of pride, anger, or even just the desire to not be a burden. The result is still the same. We repeatedly run up against this one truth: the hardest problems to solve are usually the ones we want to keep.

But if we’re the ones wanting to help, and our help is rebuffed? What can we do then? I find great comfort in these lovely words by Norman Maclean, from his novella A River Runs Through It and Other Stories:

Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.

Things to Read

The power of conformity: How good people do evil things

This is a nice overview of the ways that conformity leads us into ethical failures, including a summary of Solomon Asch’s research.

How to Buy Happiness

Arthur Brooks has been writing a weekly column for The Atlantic called “How to Build a Life.” The articles have all been research-grounded and thought-provoking.

Are We Automating Racism?

This YouTube video from Vox takes a fascinating, if troubling, look at how biases are inadvertently created from the algorithms running much of the Web.

Impact Highlight

APOPO is one of those organizations that’s developed a mind-boggling innovation, the kind of accomplishment that seems too unlikely to be true. Using trained rats (and dogs), APOPO safely sweeps minefields in former conflict zones by relying on the amazing sense of smell of their animal companions. You read that right: landmine-sniffing rats.

As if that wasn’t enough, the heroRATs have also been trained to identify undiagnosed tuberculosis. Since APOPO’s founding over 20 years ago, they’ve cleared more than 106,000 landmines and prevented an estimated 90,000 cases of tuberculosis infection, saving thousands of lives in the process.
Apopo Logo

Promotional Stuff

The How to Help Podcast is live and ready to go. I hope you’ll take a moment to listen, subscribe, rate, and share. Here are links to the first three episodes.

Episode 1 - Finding Your Calling - Prof. Jeff Thompson (Listen Here)
Episode 2 - Neuroscience of Altruism - Dr. Abigail Marsh (Listen Here)
Episode 3 - Hope - David Williams (Listen Here)

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