On Helping Others

(A brief essay categorized under “Things Sean Is Learning Really Really Slowly And Should Probably Be Cautious About Sharing Publicly”)


If we do not recognize that everybody needs help, then we will not be able to help anybody.

Important corollary number one: knowing that another body needs help, does not mean that that we know what help is needed.

Important corollary number two: knowing that another body needs help, and knowing what help that body needs, does not mean that we are the one called to provide that help.

The corollaries make clear that we need to be humble and we need to go slowly. It’s tempting to visualize ourselves as saviors whose love will redeem all the world. But we don’t know what we don’t know, which mitigates against grand projects and big leaps.

When we know how to help – when it’s clear how to help – then yes. Help. But we don’t always know and it isn’t always clear and in those cases, “help” can easily unintentionally morph into “hurt.” Or “hinder.”

And sometimes, even when knowing the specific form of help needed, we aren’t the ones who need to bring it. Someone else might be better situated to offer the help. That’s okay. Perhaps there are no saviors, only patterns of saving, and the formal way in which we interact with those patterns is . . . not up to us to determine.

We are not dictators of kindness. We don’t get to insist that others accept this or that scenario for a solution to their problem. They are allowed to own the problem on the terms and conditions that resonate and make sense to them – up to and including not having the problem we think they have – and our work is to abide.

Note that sometimes we help others by acknowledging our own need for help. To ask for help is to invite the other to help us, which is itself a form of love. If we are always the helper – if we insist on that role, subtly or otherwise – then we are only adopting a one-sided vision of helpfulness. It’s okay – it’s more than okay – to be helped by another. What matters is the help – which is love – rather than the specific narrative assigned to it, or the specific role we play in the narrative.

The suggestion is that there is a sort of relationship premised not on a victim/hero or savior/lost soul dichotomy. Rather, it is a relationship premised on a level playing field, where asking for and responding to a request for help are features of a relationship between equals, each one of whom could be the other and, with respect to their asking for and offering help, have been and will continue to be the other.

There is no one. There is also no other.

On that view, being helpful is a sort of dynamic continuum, a sort of wave on which we surf – or through which we gently tumble – aiming for grace and balance rather than status or praise.

Sometimes there is a tendency to view problems as flaws of character. We shouldn’t have problems, nor should others. We posit a world in which there are no problems or flaws. Everything is awesome! But what if that world does not exist? What if what exists is this ongoing attentiveness and willingness to help and be helped?

In my ongoing interior dialogue between arrogance and humility, helpfulness and spiritual self-aggrandizing, I wrote a little screed in which I suggested that A Course in Miracles could be shortened to literally “helping others” and “letting our own self be helped.” Neither step can be ignored! We tend to cherish and idolize the first while suppressing the second.

But if we let go of the ideal – the perfect, God as perfection, our self in pursuit of perfection – then what remains is the collective in which we enact love according to our structure. There are ups and downs. There are steps backward. We help and are helped. And it’s no big deal.

Service, Sustainability and . . . Bags

I talk often about service. What happens when we realize there is no God and that others aren’t here for us to compete with but to share with? Not to take from but to give to? What happens we no longer perceive our selves as separate from the collective?

The community sewing room where bag-making workshops are held. That’s me folding the bags on a wooden frame – the next step is to grommet them.

Well, love, broadly speaking. And service – in the many forms it assumes – is another way of saying (a perhaps more helpful way at times because it’s less dramatic) “I love you.”

Service – like love – is responsive to present circumstances. Somebody who is well-fed but lacks transportation is not helped by a free meal, just as somebody who is hungry and has no money to buy food is not helped by a road trip.

(Yes, there are more complex systemic problems underlying hunger and poverty, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid responding to the particular instances we encounter. Indeed, it is often in relationship to those particular circumstances that more long-term and sustainable solutions are revealed)

We are consumers, inevitably. This is a feature of being human, not a bug. We are what we consume. Consumption becomes us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be more thoughtful or creative or cautious or restrained in terms of what and how and when we consume.

One way to rethink our habits of consumption is to give attention to the possibilities of reuse and repurpose. What is left over? Is anything ever truly “useless?” Is there another end to which X can be put? Manufacturers tend to envision a narrowly tailored use for products and market them accordingly. When we’re done with that use, can we find another?

We use a lot of feed bags on our homestead – mostly for chickens but sometimes for horses. Folks around us do as well. Pigs, cows, sheep, goats, rabbits . . . animals gotta eat. The bags the feed comes are¬†generally sturdy fifty pound bags. When they’re empty, they’ve accomplished the purpose the manufacturer foresaw.

But we are just getting started.

Some folks use these empty bags as leaf-filled foundation seams in winter. Others use them as a way of not buying plastic trash bags. Just load them with trash and take them to the dump / transfer station/ or whatever it’s called in your town. These are viable and effective applications of the reuse principal.

But there is another way, one that keeps those bags bagging for a long time to come. We turn the fee bags into shopping bags with handles for humans to use when go food shopping at the coop. Or are lugging books to and from the library. Or supplies to school. Or to a friend’s house for a party. Et cetera.

Bag-making workshops have been a staple of our community for a long time. I was actually a reporter for the local daily and covered some of the early meetings. Folks get together in the basement of the community center where there’s a communal sewing space, set up a de facto production line, and over the course of a few hours reconfigure feed bags to a more general and long-term use.

It’s fun and practical. What else can we ask for in life?

We remove the thin plastic liners, shake out remnants of grain (a big plus for the long songbird population), turn the bags inside out, fold them into rough squares, grommet the bottoms, add handles (reconfigured garden hose or something similar) and voila! Sturdy and cool-looking bags.

During the last workshop, we made two hundred bags in a little over two hours. I worked the grommet machine (somewhat ineptly).

Two hundred bags repurposed from old feed bags. Even though I was helping – where “helping” means needing a lot of help from more experienced bagmakers – we made all these in just over two hours.

The bags are donated to local entities – shelters, coops, libraries, second-hand clothing stores, and so forth. Some are given to friends. Last week in the cashier line I gave one to the woman ahead of me who’d forgotten her own bags.

In time, small steps equal a journey. And walking together – be it gardening, protesting, making bags – is a happy and fructive way to walk.

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If you are interested in learning how to make bags from feed bags, starting workshops in your own community, or otherwise learning about bag-making, Bagshare is a good starting place.