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helping ~ serving

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Rachel Naomi Remen MD pointed to the subtle distinction between helping and serving when she worked with us during the end-of-life care practitioners program at the Metta Institute. Following yesterday’s report on my experience with this tricky duo, I dug up Dr. Remen’s text (excerpt):

Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals. When you help you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength. If I’m attentive to what’s going on inside of me when I’m helping, I find that I’m always helping someone who’s not as strong as I am, who is needier than I am. People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness. When I help I am very aware of my own strength. But we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve. The wholeness is us serves the darkness in others and the wholeness in life.

Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like healing, is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person I am serving. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of gratitude. These are very different things.

One response »

  1. What a wonderful articulation of the distinction between helping and serving!

    Sometimes we hear or think “I did such and such for so and so and they didn’t even say thank you!” If we find ourselves saying these kinds of things we can be pretty sure that we are “helping” rather than “serving.” Serving can often happen without anyone else even knowing what we have done. There is no need for them to know… we are simply grateful to have the opportunity to participate and to contribute. The needs of others and world circumstances are often experienced as (and may actually be) insatiable. However, I believe if we are contributing whatever seems most appropriate in any moment with what we know at that time – we are filled with gratitude for our human experience. We are serving. When things become a tangle of contradictory emotions and frustration… then I can be pretty sure that I am helping or wanting to help rather than serving or intending to serve.

    Your post Peter shines a soft light of perspective on these two aspects — a perfect contribution to my morning.


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