I was walking down the street during last week’s “snowmageddon” and saw an elderly lady shoveling her walkway. I’m weighing my words when I say she was elderly… She was old. Really old. Wanting to be the good Samaritan, I asked her if I could help. She proudly said no. I said it was really no bother, jokingly that it would actually give me a few more minutes of quiet before going home to house filled with what I affectionately refer to as “endless noise of love”. She again said no, that she quite liked the exercise, and went on shoveling. I got the feeling that any further insistence might have bordered on harassment, so I went home.
On Sunday, I took the kids to the Saint-Patrick’s day parade. On the way, I jokingly asked whether or not they would hop on a float if someone were to let us hitch a ride. They said yes. I thought it was an outlandish proposition that would never happen. We asked a few floats. One was full. The Dublin Pub would have said yes, but they rightly concluded that kids on an alcohol-themed float was probably not the best idea. Finally, we asked Lakeshore Kiwanis float if we could jump on and their float. They must have sensed the look of excitement in my eyes, and they gladly welcomed us aboard. It was an experience to remember…
From these two contrasting experiences, I realized something about good deeds. They definitely make the do-gooder feel good. It’s kind of a truism, but it just feels good to do good things for other people… To make their day a little brighter. A little easier. Life is hard. It’s complicated. It sometimes feels overwhelming. So it is nice to make someone’s day just that much better. To lighten the load. To surprise them.
But while doing the good deed makes the do-gooder feel good, it can sometimes make the recipient feel insecure. Inadequate. Diminished. I realized that when asking around for a float to hop on. And I realized that when I asked the old lady if I could help her, it could have implied that she was unable to do it for herself. And while I may have lightened her load for the day, my offer might have diminished her for the days to come.
The manner in which an offer for a good deed is presented important. By asking if I could help, it sort of suggested that she needed help. I retrospect, I think that had I not asked, but simply offered, something like a casual “here, let me get that”, she would not have felt diminished by the gesture (assuming she felt that way at all). It would have just been a casual, community-type living.
“Do you need help?” and “here, let me help you…” have the same ultimate purpose. But they are two very different ways of achieving the same result. The former is potentially suggestive of inadequacy, whereas the latter is proactive and engaging. In general, people don’t mind getting help (unless they’re a 3-year old kid! :). But most people don’t like being made to feel like they need help, even if they would ultimately appreciate receiving it.