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How Helpful is Being Helpful?

By Rev. Carol Bodeau

Dear friends,

Just over a week ago, our Westside Board President, Carol Coffey, passed away suddenly. Though he was facing some health challenges, his death was sudden and a shock. He will be missed greatly, but he leaves a legacy—as have so many Westsiders who are no longer with us—of lessons that we can carry forward. Before Carol’s passing, he was working hard with our Legacy Campaign Team to ensure the long-term future of our community.

One of the things I really appreciated about Carol, and so many others in our congregation, was the willingness to take positive action towards a better future. We are people inspired to be of service, and to make the world a better place. One of the challenges we face, though, is figuring out how to do this in ways that truly honor ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person.’

What do I mean by that? On the day I interviewed for a place at Starr King School for the Ministry, our UU seminary in California, the older student interviewing me rocked my world with a particular comment about my application. Here’s how that exchange went:

He said, “I see you’ve used the word ‘help’ quite a bit in your application.” And I proudly replied, “Well, yes.” His answer stunned me, “It bothers me. You didn’t use the word ‘empower’ once.”

Well, I knew in that moment that, whether I got into seminary or not, that lesson could shape my whole life.

‘Helping’ often implies a certain lack of power on the person receiving the help. It’s too easy to mistakenly assume that the person(s) we are aiding are somehow without agency or power; it’s too easy to create a profound imbalance of power when we perceive an imbalance of resources, abilities, or experience. So when we step in to ‘help,’ we often do so in a way that feels diminishing to the other person.

What if we think about empowering others? What does that look like? For me, it looks like maintaining a sense of equality through recognizing the ways the person or people we are supporting already have power. It means letting them lead, and ask for whatever kind of support they might want. It means considering ourselves resources, rather than rescuers, and considering others capable of finding and increasing their own power in whatever challenges they are facing.

To this day, the distinction between empowering and helping is one I struggle with constantly. Being “helpful” often makes me feel safer, more secure, more competent. Being someone who supports others in them feeling more powerful is a little scary, a little less familiar. It means, frankly, that I don’t get the level of control I prefer.

As we remember Carol Coffey and all the others who have gone before us, I hope we can honor the ways they demonstrated an ability to empower those around them. Let’s emulate their ability to provide resources for the future, and cultivate in others a sense of initiative, competence, and inherent worth in order to face the inevitable challenges of this life.

With gratitude for those who have empowered us at Westside, and hope for a bright future.

Rev. Carol Bodeau

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