Weekly Edgework #64 - September 20, 2005

On Being Useful

Don’t ever assume that you have to be helpful to be useful. Your skills are not always required. Why is it so hard for us to accept that sometimes just showing up is enough to brighten everyone’s moods? (The Art of Imperfection, Véronique Vienne, 1999, p. 73)

Most people enjoy being helpful. And a lot of good can be said about being helpful people. The Bible even states quite clearly that if we have material possessions and see someone in need, yet do not help that person out, it is doubtful that the love of God dwells within us (I John 3:17).

I have frequently noticed how life is enriched when people help each other out. This past summer about a dozen friends and family members spent a whole day helping me re-shingle the roof of our house. Some brought tools and all brought their skills to help me out with a task quite impossible to do alone. Some stayed a few hours. Others stayed all day. Dick Peters, for example, came well before anyone else and stayed for the supper barbeque we celebrated with our family in the evening. I noticed a bright glint in his eyes throughout the day. He had joy in knowing that he was helping his friend.

I take some pride in my Mennonite heritage in this regard. We are known as people who stand ready to help wherever and whenever a need arises. How many thousands of Mennonites have participated in rebuilding efforts organized by Mennonite Disaster Service in the wake of natural disasters? Or in canning meat to be sent to hungry people somewhere in the world? Or quilting blankets to cover and comfort the destitute. Whenever Mennonite Central Committee gets another positive review on the radio or in the press, letting the world know that it is one of the most reliable and efficient non-governmental organizations meeting human need in the name of Christ, I am glad to be a loyal supporter.

Many of us are known as people helpers – practical, hands-on people. We see a need and we marshal our resources to meet that need. And when all is said and done, people have been helped and we feel good about ourselves. The world is a much better place because of the many pragmatic people who express their love for God and others through being helpful.

But in the process of being helpful, one must always ask the question of whether one is, at the same time, being useful. It is possible to be overly zealous in our helpfulness. It is an ever-present temptation, for example, to be patronizing toward those whom we are helping. When this happens, those being “helped” are robbed of personal dignity. They feel themselves to be powerless, objects of charity and even demeaned. Although they may be adults, they feel like helpless children for whom everything is provided. Being useful in the process of being helpful often means backing off when it becomes clear that persons can begin helping themselves. If that doesn’t happen helpfulness can actually become destructive instead of useful in the long run.

But we need to go one step further, and that is to suggest, as does Véronique Vienne, that to be useful sometimes means forgetting about being helpful. That idea, however, is hard to swallow for practically minded people. How, we ask, can we be useful if we are not fixing something, rebuilding a house or handing out food to hungry people – doing something? Faith without works is dead, is it not? So what’s wrong with being helpful? What more can you ask of me than being helpful wherever I can? Is that not the essence of Christian service?

Such questions reveal how hard it is for us to be people of the heart. Being practical has its place, but when left unchecked it can become a cover up of our shallow lives. It can expose our addictions to perfectionism, to being do-gooders for our own sake, and to being controllers. When we are being helpful we can make decisions that affect others and that bring demonstrable results. We can create our own agendas, strategies and timelines. Being useful doesn’t always allow us that kind of control. Sometimes it simply means being present as “people of the heart” without an agenda or a defined mission.

When we have learned to live out of the center of our hearts others will find our presence useful even if we are not being helpful in some practical way. A husband who is only appreciated and “loved” for all the things he does and provides for his wife is a poor soul indeed! But when he is loved for who he is, he and his wife will find it extremely useful to take long, leisurely walks and stand on the edge of town, hand in hand, as they watch the ever-changing hues of a prairie sunset. Those addicted to being helpful find it easy to see such activity as useless – at least second rate to being helpful somewhere to somebody. You know, doing something practical.

When we live from our hearts we allow other people to set the agenda. When we take our place on ground level with the hurting and broken persons of this world an unspoken language evolves. A magnetism of sorts emerges in which heart is drawn to heart. A transparency is created that exudes safety, comfort and belonging. A fatherless child’s hope erupts with passion when he senses that my heart is ready and willing to touch his. A disoriented young man reaches out to touch me if our eyes have met in open, speechless respect. A struggling immigrant family will come to soak up dignity and respect they often miss elsewhere. A grieving couple, just having lost a parent, will find my coming useful, even if I don’t say a thing.

It is relatively easy to be helpful to people, especially if you have the resources, talents and time required. And this is the least we should do. But we must also learn the art of being useful even if that means forgetting about being helpful.