Helping vs. Presence


“Have you tried this pill, acupuncture, special diet, yoga, etc. etc. etc.? My friend did and she got pregnant.”

“I know people who have adopted first and then had their kids naturally afterwards so that can happen for you too!”

“Have you tried getting prayed over by this pastor or going to this healing conference? This pastor/conference has a special anointing for your situation. They’ve had a lot of couples get pregnant.” 

“Just pray harder.”  “Have more faith.”  “Keep believing.”  “It’s all in God’s timing.”  “It will happen, just be patient.”

This is some of the well-intentioned advice I’ve been given (and still given) these past couple of years in this season of trying to start a family. With continuously receiving news on the different ways your body is broken, then given glimmers of hope, and then more disappointing news, it’s a cruel emotional and physical rollercoaster to be forced to be on.  And though I love and appreciate the well meaning family and friends wanting to help… really tough seasons like this, it’s not the help that I need…Instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, what I need is someone who chooses to patiently share in my pain and touch my wounds with a warm and tender hand. One of my favorite writers, Parker Palmer, puts it best when he says, “Advice-giving comes naturally to our species, and is mostly done with good intent. But in my experience, the driver behind a lot of advice has as much to do with self-interest as interest in the other’s needs — and some advice can end up doing more harm than good.” And this isn’t to say I haven’t been guilty of this myself. Trust me, being a 2 on the enneagram (appropriately called the “Helper”), not wanting to help can be quite the challenge for me.  And whether I chose the jobs and vocations I’ve had or they chose me, they all definitely had some role of helping others that are in need (education, ministry, non-profit, etc.).  It’s a role I was used to, a role I felt was expected of me, and a role I automatically think is mine to fill.  I’ve done some work in counseling and personal reflection to be self-aware of my shadow side of the Helper and to work to be a healthy Helper instead, something I am still learning to master.

The first time I understood the power of presence over helping was in seminary.  My parents who had planted, pastored, and shepherd our home church were being accused and attacked by a small but very vocal group of elders and eventually those attacks even spread to me and my brother.  This brought a whole lot of ugly into what I had viewed as the community I had grown up with, the extended family that had helped shape me and whom I had trusted. And through years of “trying to understand” the sacrifices and pain that my entire family bore in supporting my father’s call into pastoral ministry, I had reached the end of any understanding that was left and was finally pushed into deep resentment and anger that I had tried to push behind me.  And eventually that led me to question not only my own calling into ministry but my faith in the church and even in God’s goodness.  My world as I had know it had begun to crumble around me and I felt like it left me behind inside a cavernous hole of disappointment and depression.

Immediately the helpers jumped in with their advice and ways to cheer me up. Some told me that I needed to forgive those who hurt me and my family in order to move on and prayed that the spirit of anger and bitterness would break in me. Some tried to encourage me by telling me that because my parents were faithful, that it would bear fruit in a matter of time. Some in trying to be in solidarity with me, in reality were projecting their own angry feelings towards church and christianity to what was happening to me, saying ‘this is the reason why I can’t stand churches and their politics.” A lot of the advice was probably true and insightful in their own way, but it didn’t help me out of my depression. And sometimes it made me feel worse.

But it was a few sisters at seminary and a few outside who gave me the “mere” act of witnessing my pain and anger.  They would always come by and drop off food, wouldn’t judge me if I didn’t want to get out of bed or bathe or was wearing the same clothes I had on for a whole week, and held me when I needed to cry.  Having another person listen to my innermost feelings and vulnerable thoughts and to give me the opportunity to be completely “real” with another person was the powerful change agent that began my healing.

Again Parker Palmer:

“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.
Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.”

We all like to run from discomfort or try our best to make it go away.  But I think the gift of sitting with our discomfort and those of others is the deep connection that can occur with the consistent gift of presence….and nothing more.

In the same article, Parker Palmer talks of the time he struggled with depression:

“During my depression, there was one friend who truly helped. With my permission, Bill came to my house every day around 4:00 PM, sat me down in an easy chair, and massaged my feet. He rarely said a word. But somehow he found the one place in my body where I could feel a sense of connection with another person, relieving my awful sense of isolation while bearing silent witness to my condition. By offering me this quiet companionship for a couple of months, day in and day out, Bill helped save my life. Unafraid to accompany me in my suffering, he made me less afraid of myself. He was present — simply and fully present — in the same way one needs to be at the bedside of a dying person. It’s at such a bedside where we finally learn that we have no “fix” or “save” to offer those who suffer deeply. And yet, we have something better: our gift of self in the form of personal presence and attention, the kind that invites the other’s soul to show up.”

I love that. Our gift of self in the form of personal presence and attention invites the other’s soul to show up.  And that’s what’s been most true to me in this season.  The rare times I’ve had with those who had given me that gift, really did allow my soul to show up…and to help me get back up again and to try again…because it reminded me, with God’s help, how resilient my soul can be.

So if you know someone who is going through something particularly difficult, remind yourself the words of Anne Lamott – “Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. Help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.”  When you want to give advice….just don’t. Unless someone really asks and insists for some. Ask Parker Palmer wisely says, “Instead, be fully present, listen deeply, and ask the kind of questions that give the other a chance to express more of his or her own truth, whatever it may be.”

And if you’re on the other end of receiving unwanted advice from someone close to you, just give them a smile and ask politely to help you by not helping you.  Or help them not to help you so much by sending them Parker Palmer’s article here:



2 Replies to “Helping vs. Presence”

  1. SO well said, Neah. Indeed, learning to simply be with another is an important part of our spiritual formation. Praying you have as many partners in silence as your soul needs. You are not alone.

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