Helping compared to Serving

As many of you know, I honor the Being a Compassionate Caregiver teachings of Frank Ostaseski. He’s simply a volunteer, a layman, a practicing Buddhist. But there is nothing “simple” about his ferocity and curiosity about the dying experience. I’d like to share bits of his lectures. His perspectives are profoundly right. I know this because I’ve served the dying and their caregivers for many years. I hope you enjoy them. Thank you.

“Too often in caregiving, we’re not so much looking to see what serves, but to confirm some identity. I call this Helpers Disease and it’s a more virulent epidemic than AIDS or cancer.

I’m talking about the ways we try to set ourselves apart from other peoples’ suffering. Setting ourselves apart by our pity, our fear, our professional warmth and even our charitable acts. The attachment to the role of helper is pretty old in most of us, but if we aren’t really careful and don’t stay aware, this identity will imprison us and also those we serve.

After all; if I’m going to be a Helper then somebody else has to be Helpless. My good friend Rachel Remen, who wrote the book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, wrote about this sort of helping and I think it’s the most beautiful definition of service that I know. To paraphrase her:

‘Service is not the same as helping. Helping is based on inequality. It’s not a relationship between equals.  When you help, you use your strength to help someone of lesser strength. It’s a one up, one down relationship. And people feel this inequality. And when we help we may inadvertently take away more than we give, diminishing people’s sense of self worth and self esteem. When I help I’m very aware of my own strength. But we don’t serve only from our strength. We serve from our whole selves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our wounds serve, our darkness serves, even our limitation serves. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in the other and the wholeness in life.

Helping incurs debt. It’s a feeling that I owe you one, or a “I’m glad it’s not me” arrogance. But service is mutual. When I help, I have the feeling of satisfaction, but when I serve, I have the feeling of gratitude. Serving is also different than fixing. When we fix, we see the other person as broken. Fixing is a kind of judgment that separates us from the other and creates a distance.”

And here’s my favorite…

“So fundamentally we see that helping, serving and fixing are ways of seeing life. When we help we see life as weak, when we fix, see life as broken, but when we serve, we see life as whole. And the server knows they are being used by something greater than themselves. “

Ahhhh…this is music, poetry and truth.

Thank you.


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