It’s not easy to do, and it has taken me a few years to grow the muscles needed to make that large leap, but I’m slowly learning how to admit that I’m wrong. I do it more now for menial things – yes, we should feed the dogs one cup of food a day, not four; yes, I called her boyfriend by the wrong name because I forgot who he was. These things happen, and they’re relatively easy to admit.
There was one time I was really wrong a few years ago. Well, there were countless times I was wrong a few years ago, but this moment in particular was different from other wrong-moments, because it wasn’t a time when I insulted someone, or defended something indefensible; it’s a time when I quietly and calmly proclaimed to Husband, who was just Boyfriend, a life philosophy I had decided upon.
A friend of mine had just ended a very long relationship, and felt lost. A family member, at the same time, was struggling to find his way in life, and didn’t know what to do next. Another friend of mine was wandering disorientedly in the limbo of post-college, like someone who had too long enjoyed lying out on the beach, and now was stumbling around with sun-poisoning, seeing blotches. Between the three of them, Husband and I had many conversations about “what to do,” and “how to help.” I found myself spending a lot of time researching the Peace Corps, setting up job interviews, sending gifts of books about Go-Getter Career Ladies and Moving Past Sad Loveless Relationships, making time to talk on the phone whenever it rang, and generally “supporting.”
Over dinner one night, I shared a “revelation” with Husband/Boyfriend.
“You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about my friends, and about your cousin,” I started, ushering some lettuce thoughtfully around my plate with the back of my fork.
“Yeah. And you know, I think I’ve realized something.”
“When someone can’t do for themselves, sometimes you have to do for them.”
“You know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
He didn’t seem to be on board, so I took this as a cue to explain further.
” Like sometimes, when we’re really struggling, it’s near impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and to see the path that could lead you to the light. We’re too overwhelmed, we’re too depressed, we’re too in the middle of things to be able to see the whole situation objectively, and see a way out.”
“OK . . .”
He put a forkful of salad in his mouth and continued to examine his dinner. He didn’t seem to be understanding the import and depth of what I was revealing here, so I went on.
” So when someone’s in the situation, I feel like you need to do for them what they can’t do for themselves, to get them started. To help them.”
” I don’t think that ever works,” he said with his mouth full. He returned to chewing.
This was not what I expected.
“People need to learn to ‘do’ for themselves; otherwise it doesn’t work.”
My cheeks were started to flush. This was very annoying.
“I understand you’re saying it doesn’t work. But why?”
“Because they need to do for themselves.”
“But what if they can’t?”
“Then they can’t.”
“But then nothing changes for them, and they stay stuck.”
“So then they stay stuck.”
“But that’s not helping anything!”
He shrugged and went back to his salad. I was tempted to spear him with my fork, but instead unleashed the irritation on a cherry tomato rolling around the plate. This was totally unacceptable to me. The thought of just letting someone you love languish in a painful rut when you knew the way out and could help and support and guide was totally unacceptable to me. It made my blood boil.
Well, he was right. Four years later, after providing endless counsel to friends, family, and colleagues – none of which was taken, and all of which drove me completely insane – I realize that I was utterly and completely wrong, and he was completely right.
I thought of this again yesterday when we were volunteering for MLK Day. At the site where my client, Urban Roots, is going to be redoing a playground, some vacant lots, and a scraggly basketball court, about 35 volunteers – myself & Husband included – had assembled to help pick up trash and do some colorful painting on the court and surrounding fence.
After months of helping to research the neighborhood, think of possible funders for the redevelopment, write a curriculum for high school students around the project, create marketing materials, I had still never actually been to the site. I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t realize how bad. It looked like a blown out, post-apocolyptic zombie desert. It was like 28 days later in the ghetto. In a three block radius of a completely residential neighborhood crammed full of narrow townhomes, only about 10 houses weren’t boarded up, or crumbling down. Out of maybe 80.
The lots and court were littered with aggressive trash – diapers full of shit; Welch’s juice bottles sloshing with yellow urine; drug baggies and credit card chunks sliced into razors, lying side by side in the weeds. The kind of trash that doesn’t just fall out of pockets – it gets thrown on the ground and yells “fuck you!” to anyone walking by. Even the garbage is angry and has its guard up.
I was working on a patch of sidewalk with Gabriella, one of the teachers from the YouthBuild Charter school, with whom I’ve been creating and coordinating the workshop on urban redevelopment. Her students were there helping, and I have to say I was amazed by how willing they were to pick up trash, rake up filth and needles and dead leaves, without a grumble. These are tough kids with tougher circumstances; I would not have been so gracious at seventeen.
Gabriella was filling up shovels full of garbage from the hole in the pavement where a tree used to be, while I held the trash bag open.
“You know, there’s some stuff we’re going to talk about in our reflection on Wednesday about this.”
“What’s that?” I asked, coughing a little and turning my head away from the mushroom cloud of stench and dust that rose from the trash bag as she emptied the shovel.
“So we’re working, the kids are working hard over here – ”
“They’re doing an amazing job, by the way.”
“Thank you; thank you. So we’re working hard over here, and I see some folks from the neighborhood standing along the fence. So I go over and introduce myself, and tell them you know, ‘we’re from the YouthBuild Charter School and we’re here to help with your all’s neighborhood today to make this park nicer.’ And they’re like, “your all’s? your all’s??‘ You know?”
(I didn’t totally know. But I wanted to very badly.)
” So then I’m like, ‘you waitin’ for a shovel?’ Like playful and all, but you know, kind of serious too.”
“Of course – it’s their neighborhood”
“Right. Exactly. I’m like, ‘y’all are welcome to come and help, we got some other neighbors doing so right over there,’ and they’re all like, “oh no no no, y’all keep doing what you’re doing, this isn’t for us, we don’t do this stuff.’ And walk away.”
“Yep,” I say knowingly, resigned to the end of this story.
” So I’m like, OK, you’re going to get upset that we come in here and are doing things to your neighborhood, but you won’t help? So now what?”
“I know – you can’t do for other people, but sometimes you have to, when children are involved.”
In that moment I remembered the Tense Salad Standoff of ’08, and realized that my thinking has changed; my behaviors have changed; I was wrong; but sometimes, in certain circumstances, it’s still right. And perhaps even that will turn out to be wrong – but right now I don’t have another solution for those times when innocent children are involved.
It’s 9:00 right now. At 10:00 I have my first meeting with a potential coaching client. I haven’t had a chance to write about this yet, but in short, last Friday I started a chat with a neighbor at coffee shop where I work each morning, and the more he asked about what I do, and the more I told him, the stranger it got. I gave him my card, and he asked whether I would be his life coach. He was joking but I replied, “well, funny you should ask – I have an appointment at 2:00 today to talk to someone about becoming a certified life coach.” His face changed, and so did mine – we weren’t joking any more. We spoke last night, and I’m going over there in twenty minutes for his first consultation. It was very strange how this materialized about two days after I said aloud that I wanted to do this, so I’m going with it. I’m excited, but also keep coming back to the thought that I need to clearly explain to him what I am not – I am not a professional organizer; I am not a therapist; I am not a personal assistant; I am not a friend. I will help him to figure out where he is stuck, and how to get unstuck, but I will not do for him.
At 12:00 today I have lunch with Patience, the amazing high school senior I’m mentoring through the Graduation Coach Campaign. It’s funny – only when I went to retrieve the url for that link did it hit me that it’s graduation “coach,” and not mentor or guide or counselor or anything else. That’s exactly what compelled me to say yes when asked to be a Graduation Coach – I’m not supposed to do for Patience. I’m supposed to help her figure out how to do for herself. I’m supposed to let her feel and know that someone is there checking in on her, keeping her on track in her efforts to graduate on time and apply to college, by helping her to make goals, deadlines, and holding her accountable. I buy her lunch, we talk, I support, and then we’re done. I don’t hold her hand, or fill out papers for her, or see her for hours every day the way a teacher does. I help her to figure out what she wants, and how to get there, but she’s driving this thing. And that I love and appreciate.
Tonight at 6:00 is the first meeting of our Young Friends group. I’ll be bringing together a gaggle of strangers and try to get us to create a roadmap for the year, plan some service projects and fundraisers, and start a community. I will need to lead, but also make it clear through my comportment that this is a group effort and a shared project; I’ll bring a vision, time, and organization skills, but I can’t “do” everything for us – nor do I want to.
So it looks like today will be full of opportunities to think about what it means to coach someone into solving their own problems, and how to lead in a way that inspires others to create and own projects, instead just following directions. I suppose in many ways those are the same things.
The question that really weighs on my mind – and the lesson I hope to learn – is, if we’re able to do the above well, how do we translate that into motivating members of the communities we hope to serve, to solve their own problems, to create and own their own projects, instead of having others come in to do for them? Because I’m the first now to admit – that never really works.