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When Helping Harms


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It was an all out assault of help. painting a house in one day is no small task. Add installing appliances, fixing cabinets, replacing light fixtures, and doing some landscaping and you have a makeover. not an extreme one, but certainly intense. The trucks and all the activity drew a great deal of attention from the home owner’s neighbors. How they treated him afterwards, we wouldn’t know. We were long gone—but not before we had painted. A lot. We not only painted the man’s house, we carelessly got paint on his dining room chairs which were used as stepladders since they did not look like ‘nice chairs’ to some in our group, and we added some complimentary brush strokes to his bushes as well.

The home owner came home during the procedure and noticed his dog was nervously barking in the corner of the yard. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon,’ he said reassuringly to the dog but he was also reminding himself and perhaps us as well. Many of the folks in our group tried to be friendly and ‘relational,’ talking to him when they could but seemed not to notice that everyone asked him the same questions and, more importantly, he did not seem interested in talking to us. At all.

But this event wasn’t primarily about him, it was primarily about us. And that’s why events like this happen so often. They yield a payoff, make us feel good. usually. In this case, though, we met afterwards to discuss the event. And while each of us had noticed one or two things that we had done poorly, our shared experiences revealed that overall we had likely done more harm than good. This didn’t feel so good. Reviewing service projects as a matter of course is an extremely useful way to learn about unintended, harmful consequences in serving others and, better yet, how to create safeguards against them in the future.

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I’ll write about three of these safeguards next week. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. How do you avoid doing harm, when you set out to help?

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