Helping When You Feel Helpless

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Several weeks ago, I was having a particularly blah day. For reasons that hold no real weight, but which I mostly attribute to my perpetual (with brief interludes of clarity) state of post-graduate confusion, I was feeling stuck, dissastisfied, and uncertain.

I thought that spending an hour or two in front of the TV watching drama unfold in other people’s lives might help—it didn’t. I thought taking a shower might help—it didn’t. I thought working on my writing might help—it didn’t. I had nearly resigned myself to riding out this wave of self-pity when I remembered I made plans to help my younger brother Cole and his friend Mona study for French.

So I pulled myself together (read: I wiped the mascara residue from beneath my eyes and twisted my hair into a makeshift bun) and went to a nearby café to review subjunctive and conditional tenses en Français.

What happened then was exactly what I should have expected to happen: we gabbed and laughed and commiserated over tricky participle rules and I felt instantly better. Sudden contentedness slid over my prior concerns and doubts like clean, hot bath water sliding over chilled skin. I forgot that I had been upset not thirty minutes earlier.

It occurred to me later that I executed an idea I learned from Gabrielle Bernstein, author of Spirit Junkie: I helped someone when I felt helpless and my own sense of peace was restored as a result. By transferring my stagnant, self-absorbed energy to a more productive cause, I received exactly what I needed—I got out of my own head and realized that everything I was building up in my mind wasn’t so dramatic or desperate after all.

Since that moment, I made a decision to continue testing this theory of helping others when I feel helpless. Any time I’ve felt temporarily burdened or lost, I’ve reached out to connect with someone or I’ve put my energy toward a task that eases someone else’s load. I’ve sent Facebook messages to old friends, I’ve cleaned the kitchen, I’ve written letters to my students in France and South Africa, I’ve recommended books to loved ones, I’ve made dinner for my family.

To restore whatever level of self-empowerment and serenity we need requires varying degrees of selflessness: it might be volunteering at an orphanage in Mexico, becoming an active member of your local soup kitchen, offering to help a co-worker with a project, or just picking up the phone to ask about someone else’s life.

That’s not to say, however, that offering our services to others should be used as a method of squandering or evading our own emotions. Rather, focusing on someone else is just a guaranteed and expedited way to view our own issues with the perspective that distance provides. And sometimes, the solution to whatever we’re feeling lies simply in the love we share with others.

After all, any kindness, attention, and love that we extend to others is the same kindness, attention, and love that we give to ourselves. It always come back around. Next time you feel helpless, get outside yourself and give. Make sure that what you’re putting out is worth receiving in turn.



When do you feel most helpless? How do you combat that feeling?