How to Help When You Feel You Can’t

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.  —Simone Weil

W ired within each of us is the desire to be helpful, to be generous with ourselves. We are made to give and naturally seek ways to actualize this innate spirit. Every day, we are given many opportunities to be generous but often fail to see them. One reason for this is due to the barrage of financial asks we encounter which can numb our helpful nature, burying it beneath a blanket of “I can’t” by equating generosity with a monetary gift. While giving money can certainly be a part of generosity, we too often fall into the trap of assigning a dollar value to helpfulness and then letting it pass us by when the amount seems like a bridge too far.

A recent meeting with a fundraising professional from a local charity triggered some introspection on the nature of helping and generosity. We met to discuss an end of year campaign for an organization I support and, though I want to see the campaign completed successfully, I had already fulfilled my commitment for 2018. I was courteously forthright about this fact when she took the conversation in a different direction by suggesting a number of other ways in which I might be helpful: from making introductions to “liking” social media posts. Our conversation made me think a bit more deeply about what it meant to help.

Are you ever asked to help a cause and feel that you can’t because you don’t have anything to give? How about a friend or loved one? Someone is in need and we can’t, or won’t, help because we feel the only way to help is with money and, for whatever reason, we don’t have any available to give. Our lives are marked by constraints, giving or otherwise yet the need for our generosity continues, unabated.  Fortunately, we have gifts to share far beyond our financial resources and sometimes we need to take a moment and inventory them so they are top of mind when the moment comes to deploy them.

Though time can often feel like a scarce resource and there are stretches of life wherein our time is spread thin, it is one of our most powerfully impactful resources. Giving time through service is one opportunity and the list of available options is nearly limitless. There are also more subtle places to apply our time in our efforts to be helpful through the gift of attention. Small acts of listening or being present can have a huge impact on those around us and we frequently miss the opportunity as we look for grander gestures or lose ourselves in our own pursuits.

Consider the friend who sends you a note letting you know that she has lost her job. We’ve all been there yet most of us struggle to be helpful when we see someone in the situation. Great job searches are all about connections, even when they seem irrelevant. Social media makes it extremely easy to make introductions. With a small investment of 10-15 minutes, you can quickly provide five introductions, five company suggestions, and encouragement. No connections to offer?  No problem! How about 30 minutes over a cup of coffee? Job searches can be lonely, discouraging affairs. Generosity begins with caring enough to make an effort for someone else.

All of us have expertise and talents. Perhaps helping someone means we share our talents. Spend an evening watching HGTV and you will inevitably see a home renovation in which someone’s mother or father helped build, paint, or repair something. That’s what parents do, right? Well, it is incredibly generous. Simply providing an extra set of hands can be a major investment. Those talents can be equally beneficial to that charity, friend, co-worker, neighbor, or stranger. Don’t think you’ve got any talents to share? Look again.

Physically helping on a project or giving your time to help someone with a job search are pretty obvious forms of generosity. There are more subtle ways to help as well. My new book, Every Day is Game Day, discusses the power of showing up for yourself and for others. Showing up is a profound form of generosity and it powerfully says “I care.”

One reason that showing up is so powerful is because most people don’t do it. That person who invited you to the exhibit of his paintings at the little gallery downtown on a Friday evening at 8pm is surprised and delighted when you show up – whether you buy something or not. Sure, sometimes people invite you because they want you to buy something but, more often than not, you made the list because they like you and want to share their moment with you.

Do you use social media? I was asked that question by the development professional I referenced earlier in this post. It turns out that I was not even “following” the charity I claimed to support. A missed layup. Social media makes it easy to support people and organizations. Sure, “easy” sometimes has little value but when you are trying to gauge interest or reactions to anything, a “thumbs up” or “like” can mean a lot by indicating what your tribe feels. It can also be disappointing when your tribe doesn’t even show up on your home page, Facebook page, Twitter feed, or wherever else you try to engage with them. Perhaps you never thought of clicking that “thumbs up” as being generous, and though we may be a little too attached to such small forms of acknowledgement, they mean something to those who often feel that they are crying into an unresponsive wilderness.

Have you ever considered the generosity present in simply responding? A message, an email, a voice mail, or even an invitation are common touch points to which most of us fail to respond. There are many reasons why we don’t respond and though “I forgot” may seem completely reasonable, it does not do much to engender a sense of caring or generosity. When I revisit old email messages, I invariably find a few messages to which I did not respond as they got buried in my inbox. We often fail to even acknowledge such messages and though our culture now (somewhat) tolerates such discourtesies, they are always missed opportunities.

When you take a moment to think about it, generosity is about far more than money. Though we often feel that we are not in a position to help someone else, the reality is that helping doesn’t always require a major sacrifice on our part. We find that we can help in a hundred small ways every day and those investments add up. Ultimately, our generosity is summed up in acts of kindness with no expectation of return. As William Danforth wrote: “Our most valuable possessions are those which can be shared without lessening; those which when shared multiply.” How might you be generous today?


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