I have come to the conclusion there are multiple benefits from reading. That is not a revolutionary thought and, certainly, not novel. But that does not make it any less true. In fact, it is always a relief to discover the truth of something that is true! That may sound a bit weird, but think about how many people don’t know the truth of true things. Indeed, I have even known folks who swore some true things were false. So it is not as simple as we think!
In my case reading often delivers a few different dividends. In the first place much of what I read is what I want to learn about. For example, I have been invited to do a keynote speech on Servant Leadership. I know some things about this concept, but I also know there is a history to the concept that goes back to the 60s. If I want to know this history, then I will read about it.
However, in the process of reading, I hit upon ideas that are inherently interesting to me or which become useful in some way down the road. These ideas may have no role in the upcoming speech I will do, but they will come to function in some other way in my activities. Often I hit upon ideas that I will incorporate in a class. I never really know how I might employ some ideas that come my way. I love the way authors write something that causes me to pause and go, “Wow, I never knew that” or “that is really interesting.”
I had an experience recently. I was reading a chapter by Daniel H. Kim. It is a chapter in a book on Servant Leadership, so clearly that was the reason I was reading the book. Kim’s chapter wound up being fascinating, although I don’t think there are any ideas there that will help me in my upcoming speech! It does not matter; I read it because I was hooked.
In bold letters indicating a special section in the chapter, Kim wrote these words: Helpful or Meddling. Just seeing those words stopped me in my tracks. I suspect part of the reason I was stopped is because generally I see myself as helper. In fact, I assume I am a big help to many people. Writing those words make me sound more special than I probably am! Of course, I would much rather be a helper than a hurter (I have been that, too, but don’t dwell on that for obvious reasons). So reading Kim’s words made me instantly reflective.
I would agree with Kim in assuming most people think they are helpers. In fact, I don’t think I know anyone who would not assume he or she is a helper. But then Kim poses the question: “How do you know you are helping?” That’s an ornery question when I realize in my own case often I have no idea. I would probably join the typical answer Kim suggests: I see myself as a helper because I intend to be a helper. I realize that is nice, but it does not by definition make me a helper.
I pushed further. I now see that I am a helper if I actually help somebody. Furthermore, I don’t get to decide whether I actually helped. The other person gets to make that call. Of course, I always get to decide whether I want to help. But I cannot decide whether I actually did help. My intentionality does not automatically make me a helper. I realized this is good. It spares me being prideful about being a helper.
So where does all this leave me (and maybe you)? And is there anything spiritual to be learned here? My quick answer is there is something spiritual to be learned and is, therefore, healthy. It cautions me to be content with my intention of helping. I will continue to help wherever and whenever I can. But I do it with some humility knowing that my intent to help does not automatically translate into actual help. In fact, if I am not careful, my helping could become meddling! For example, if I attempt to “help” someone who does not want my help, that could be considered meddling.
Even worse, I do think sometimes “helping” can be a form of coercion or manipulation. I am sure I did this as a parent and, doubtlessly, as a professor. That should take care of some of my pride in being a helper! I want to learn to be content with simply my offer of help. It will become help when the other person decides it really is help.
I am beginning to see clearly that help is a gift. Gifts can be received, ignored or denied. If help is truly a gift, then I should never force the issue. To see it in this fashion is to come close to seeing the spiritual dimension of helping. My idea of God and of Jesus offers models of authentic helping. God is creative and Jesus is a redemptive model of helping. But this kind of authentic help is always gift---theologically called grace. God is not a manipulator or forcer in my theology.