This blog has called my name for two months already, and for two months, I’ve resisted its summons. Sometimes, the preoccupations of the day suffocated the cry. Other times, I couldn't string together coherent thoughts. Thank you to those who visited anyway during my absence. I’m so grateful. Now, it’s time to give voice to the ideas I scribbled in my notebook in stolen moments during that time.
So, what’s been so important during July and August that I couldn’t make the time to write? Why couldn’t I muster enough energy to machete through the undergrowth of my reflections and arrive at a clearing worthy of expression? My only explanation is that my focus over the past two months has been outward. The denominator common to all fronts—instructional coaching in the professional domain, refugee support in the social justice area of community work, volunteer recognition and music preparation in parish ministry sector, and helping hands for the family as our daughter and son-in-law welcomed their first child—was helpfulness.
Helpfulness, I have been reminded throughout the past two months, is a dance. Not a solo act, though, that relies on inner forces like focus, for example, or response to music; memorization, maybe, and physical strength and flexibility. Not even, either, a line dance, where you dance alone with others. Rather, helpfulness is a waltz. You move in time to music and in response to the cues and steps of a partner, so that the entire experience is memorable and enjoyable for both people. In that context, over the last few months, I learned some things about helpfulness.
· Communication is vital.
It’s important to chat with your partner throughout the dance. Be clear about your purpose and your state of mind. I thought I should own up to our daughter and her husband that my joy in being there for a few days was not only altruistic. I had to acknowledge my selfish motives, too—the time with a grandson that I will see only every six weeks or so, and my desire to establish a close relationship with him. I thought they needed to know, as well, that whatever perspectives and experience I might share, I thought of them as information, not advice. All of us have valid and considered reasons for our actions.
· The music drives the experience.
The context of proferred help is key. In my professional duty, my role is to respond to the needs of the teacher. The teacher identifies the desired outcome, and my job is to help that person get there, through probing questions, specific feedback, modeling, and the identification of potential resources. Helpfulness is never about me.
· Less turns out to be more.
Before our refugee family arrived, I heard a follow-up interview with refugees who had been in Canada about six months. One of their challenges, they admitted, was fashioning a relationship with their sponsors that led to their independence. What a key revelation for me, and for our committee, as we try to support and facilitate our family, not hover over them. The right combination of support and pressure, a coach friend of mine always says, is the core principle of her work with teachers. That’s a mantra that applies to refugee sponsorship as well as education. Helpfulness must respect the wishes and the autonomy of the people to whom I am lending a hand.
· Let go and enjoy.
I’ve never considered myself a great dancer. I can dance with my husband because he’s very patient, I dance with him more often than anyone else, of course, and he’s a free spirit who is never limited by what tradition or habit have dictated the dance steps ought to be. Whereas I might point out my missteps or my awkwardness, he just loses himself in moving to the music. Though being conscious of one’s own actions and words does enable helpfulness, the profound satisfaction and joy, I am learning, come from zeroing in on the relationships and the larger purpose.
· Know when to stop.
Before your feet hurt, before you’re counting the steps to the end of the dance, before the exaltation of moving with another person to a beat that won’t be denied fades, call it a night. Helpfulness, too, has its tipping point, after which our services can come across as obstruction, interference, or worse, imposition. As educator and researcher Gary Phillips (I think he's the one who uttered the phrase I heard decades ago at a teachers’ conference) has said, When your horse has died, it’s a good idea to get off. The trick is to be aware when your help is no longer needed.
Now, as the waltz ends and the band’s introduction promises new rhythms, the needs in my sectors of involvement resume and mutate, informed, I hope, by the insights I have gained. Ready to embrace the next steps, I feel refreshed and grateful for what I have taken away while I thought I was giving.