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This is updated from a post back in 2015:


compassion has its own frame of reference

Patients at hospice taught me many things, especially that I come equipped with a frame of reference and I need to put my frame aside and keep learning.

Our patient George, was long divorced and rarely saw his twelve year old daughter. I was drawn to George. He was an iron worker, loved sports, hated our food and I wanted to “help him.” We would have these talks, and eventually he shared thoughts on his approaching death and the realization that he wouldn’t see his daughter grow up. I would leave his room and cry for his wasting body and diminishing chances at a life.

When his daughter’s birthday approached, I, along with volunteers, went to our local Target and bought presents for George to give her. The volunteers giggled over wrapping the presents in pink and purple with gobs of glitter. It felt so good.

I remember the day George’s ex-wife brought his daughter to visit him at our care center. I peeked in to see if George needed anything else on this joyous occasion. I stopped, for instead of seeing happy anticipation, I saw him hunched over in bed, quietly crying, one of the presents at his side. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I tiptoed away.

In that intimate moment, the veil fell away and I saw the velvet chain that bound him to us. Our “help” tethered him to our compassion and the heavy links became visible through his pain.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”…Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire

Did he cry because we helped him or did he cry because he had lost control of everything precious and was now dependent upon the kindness of strangers? Did he weep at the ridiculous presents that were as handy as a hot dog stand at a funeral? Did he feel trapped, allowed to walk only as far as our chains would allow and only in the perimeter of our idea of what he needed?

strapped to feel-good moments

Do the people we serve feel shackled to us? Is it kind of like the stranglehold the skydiving instructor has on the newbie skydiver who is strapped in tight and really is just along on the way down? Does our tandem journey through folks’ lives sometimes bind them to our feel-good moments?

I went back to my office and closed the door and sat down. I wondered, in all my desire to help, did I rob George of his last shred of dignity? Do we, sometimes in our exuberance to do good, forget that a real person with complex feelings is on the other end of our help? Do we see them through our feel-good lens and wonder why they are not exuberant with us?

After that day, I started to see George as more complex, and my desire to help as more self-serving. I continued to visit with him until he died. I still struggle mightily with “trying to help,” “knowing what people need,” “having answers.”

is “helping people” so great?

Here’s the thing. I think we must stop telling volunteers that “helping people” will make them feel good. I think that top-down idea inadvertently gives us the power to decide what that help looks like and demeans the person who receives the help. It puts that person at the mercy of our kindness.

What instead?

We must stop media from using headlines describing volunteer involvement such as, “volunteers put smiles on the faces of” (fill in the blank here with any group of depressed people who magically forget all their challenges because a fun volunteer showed up) or “volunteers cheer up”… (fill in the blank here with all the sad people who are just waiting for some stranger to come along and make them happy). Oh, and let’s just assume that what people really, really, really want is to become happy when faced with challenging times. Yep, a volunteer with a smile is just what they need.

When I heard a few volunteers or staff complain that a recipient of help wasn’t grateful, I began to take note. I saw how uncomfortable it was for people to be demeaned by eager “helpers.” I saw that the volunteers (thankfully the vast majority of them extensively oriented to the mission) who were successful, were the ones who wanted to bond, to converse, to be humble. They didn’t want to hold any power over the people they connected with.

if helping doesn’t make us feel good, what does volunteering make us feel?

Volunteering does wonders for our well-being. But not because we are “helping” someone in a top-down approach and somehow we feel good because, “gosh, gee, I’m reminded that I have it so much better.” It’s because we are getting out of our bubble, we are connecting with people, we are learning and growing. I truly believe that volunteering makes us more human by connecting us on a one-to-one level.

so, what do we tell volunteers?

Instead of advertising that helping people makes us feel good, we can tell our volunteers that volunteering is about connecting, learning, and understanding. We can tell them that it will nurture their soul and teach them to be better people. We can stop encouraging them (even subtly) to “help” people who are “less fortunate.”

In my experience, the most successful volunteers were the ones who didn’t go home and patted themselves on the back because they “helped” someone. No, the true volunteer spirit goes home and quietly processes everything they’ve experienced. They hope they are not an added burden. They hope they haven’t done any harm. They hope to be better the next day. This is the true volunteer spirit.

We, leaders of volunteers can be the fearless leaders in the non-profit realm and re-mold the “helper’s high” image into something truer, more ….better. We can orient a volunteer team that understands they have no power over anyone else.

Because even a velvet chain is still a chain.