Helpless. It’s more than a song title by Neil Young, it’s also a state of mind. Now I know it is easy for me to speak this way, I am a middle class white male, pure privilege. I remember hearing a speech from a man who was my age and he explained that we are all three bad decisions from homelessness. I have never forgotten that. All of us have our breaking points. Including me. That’s why I rarely judge those who are broken and falling through the cracks. But I would be speaking untruth if I did not acknowledge the role “helplessness” plays in our poor decision making. It’s easier to make good decisions and take more responsibility and exhibit more agency when things are going well and you have good supports. For people who face challenges to their health and are isolated nothing can be taken for granted.
In my 25 years working with persons with multiple challenges I know we cannot assume the kind of supports persons like me might take for granted. I have also seen friends who could snap their fingers and get another job suddenly struggle when they were laid off and needed that job right away. When we are desperate our confidence wanes and we give off vibes that do us no favours. I have seen this in myself and others. I don’t think we truly understand the way this level of confidence plays such a huge role in our moving forward.
Whatever the reasons and making no assumptions about supports, there is still the issue of our response to persons with challenges. The two extremes that characterize these responses are more common that you might realize. On one end of the spectrum there are those who are sitting pretty and wondering why those who struggle are having such a hard time. These folks get very judgemental and “tisk, tisk” about the circumstances they are observing. “Kevin, why can’t these people get jobs, what is wrong with them?” I hear this response A LOT. On the other end of the spectrum comes the heart on sleeve approach, the offer to do everything, be everything, for the struggling person. These persons are rescuers and proud of it, they rarely have consistent approaches, they just do for others as they are able. The outcomes of this approach can be problematic, the recipient often becomes even more dependent, the helplessness only passing for a short time, just long enough for the next crisis to emerge.
After 25 years of this work I have come to an approach that works for me, offer welcome and hospitality, do the things you would do for anyone, buy them a coffee and talk, take them for lunch, help them connect to a job search centre, take them to a housing navigation centre, help them fill out forms, take them to a Wellness Navigator, etc… But I will not take them home, I will not allow our relationship to become “rescuer and rescued”. Reinforcing helplessness is not doing the other any favour, there will come other challenges and setting myself up as the one who will do for the other all of the time is not sustainable and not affirming of the gifts the other brings to relationship and community.