If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that. —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In the story above, I did not do anything to help her buy her house. I simply paid her a fair wage and she made the rest happen. I love that she didn’t need me to do anything but allow her to do what she is able to do. Helping her meant enabling her. Helping her meant getting out of her way. Helping her wasn’t “helping” her in any particular way; it was simply being a part of her journey.
In this way, we are all pilgrims on similar paths. We encounter people in all sorts of places: at low points, at high points, in need, in success, as friends, as neighbors, as fellow pilgrims. Author and poet David Whyte writes that “pilgrim might be the word that most accurately describes us; someone passing through very quickly, someone here but on their way to somewhere else, someone never quite knowing what is most important, the path or the destination or the person walking along it and to it, and someone all along who is never quite sure from whence or from where their next bite of bread will come.” Along this path is where we meet.
To “meet someone where they are” is an expression often used in the context of those most in need. Pope Francis has used the expression in the context of mercy; particularly mercy toward the sick, the poor, and the imprisoned. Our world affords us many opportunities to demonstrate mercy and give of ourselves to those most in need. However, meeting someone where they are can also mean helping those souls we encounter in our home and working lives; those who may need our help in less dramatic ways.
One of the most powerful ways we can help those around us is to take Goethe’s advice and not accept them as they are. In this context, Goethe is not talking about “acceptance” in the sense of compassion or understanding but “acceptance” in the sense of settling for a particular state of being. When we don’t settle or accept people in their current state and choose to treat them as what they are capable of becoming, we are telling them that we see great potential and push them to be all they can be. Sometimes we need to expect more of others than they expect of themselves.
How might we meet someone where they are and treat them as what they might become? With our children, we might provide increasing opportunities to fail, and to succeed, by giving more freedoms. At work, we could do the same by assigning someone a project, increased budget responsibility, or broader people management duties. The biggest opportunities for improvement are when we stretch them into places that are new. Sometimes, we have to take a chance on the other person to allow her to show us, and herself, that she is capable of handling it.
Meeting someone where they are is not necessarily about finding them in a physical place. Perhaps we are called to meet him or her in a particular emotional state. Meeting someone at a point of vulnerability, ours or theirs, can present much higher stakes. For those who have been hurt or who have hurt us, treating them as what they might become centers on forgiveness. Trust only returns after we’ve crossed that edge back into vulnerability; we can’t trust someone until we give them a chance to let us down. Helping others get past a loss of trust may require that we give it first.
On Our Way to Somewhere Else
Whyte’s description of us as pilgrims carries particular weight in the context of meeting and helping: “…someone here but on their way to somewhere else, someone never quite knowing what is most important, the path or the destination or the person walking along it and to it…” Our journeys evolve from one moment to the next and our current state reflects the changing nature of the journey. Meeting others where they are requires us to maintain perspective on the context of their journey, and ours, while helping them demands that we treat them as who they might grow into. The movement along the way isn’t made in great leaps but in small steps taken repeatedly and deliberately.
Look around you. Are you accepting (settling for) people as they are or are you encouraging them to be more? Do you see opportunities to treat individuals as what they might become? Do you trust yourself enough to push them to be all that they might be? Now, go one step further. Are you accepting yourself as you are or are you treating yourself as what you are capable of becoming? David Whyte is certainly right about one element of our pilgrimage: we are “passing through very quickly.” Don’t wait; today is a great day to begin helping yourself, or someone else, move toward what they are capable of becoming.