And some kind of help / Is the kind of help / That helping's all about.
And some kind of help / Is the kind of help / We all can do without.
—from “Helping,” by Shel Silverstein, featured in Free to be You and Me (YouTube)
It’s Day Twenty-three of summer and my friend still does not have a summer job. I’ve been asked not to help. But I feel worried. I know they’re unable to make some needed car repairs. So I send them a job posting. And the next day I send another. A third the week after. They say no to my offer to cowork. My worry grows. But every time I offer unsolicited help, my anxiety goes down a little. It lets me feel a little more in control over something I have no control over.
A year later, we’ve built more trust in our relationship and we talk about that summer. I learn that they were in recovery from a chronic illness and their focus that summer was on healing, not working. They felt judged by me. Every time I sent them a job posting it felt like I was saying there was something wrong with them and their choice to not work.
I feel awful. This was so far from what I had intended. As a disabled person, I know how frustrating and hurtful it is when people try to offer help I don’t want or need. I know how I have to fight down my own internalized inferiority and reconvince myself there’s nothing wrong with doing things a little more slowly or jerkily. I feel so unseen in those moments.
That summer, I had missed the step of paying attention to how my offer to help was received. I had prioritized easing my own worry over respecting the boundary they had set.
My friend hadn’t given me a reason why they weren’t job searching. But they had told me everything I needed to know to be respectful and caring in that moment: they didn’t want my help. We don’t need to understand why someone sets a boundary to respect it.
Some kinds of help create connection and meet our loved ones’ tender needs. And some kinds of help are about easing our own anxiety. These kinds can sow the seeds of judgment in our relationships. It doesn’t matter what our intentions are. What matters is if we’re taking in what our loved ones are communicating and respecting whatever answer we receive.
May we be generous and judicious in the help we offer. May we recognize that sometimes the kindest thing to do is not to be helpful, but to pay attention when someone says no.