28 February 2011

Helping, Fixing, Serving

I just read "Helping, Fixing or Serving?", an article by Rachel Naomi Remen for my prep class, and I highly recommend it!  It triggered my religion neurons heavily, but it didn't really trigger any academic neurons, so I'm not sure how this post will turn out.

"How do you serve?"  Deborah D. Lattimore

The essential premise of the article is this:
Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life.  When you help, you see life as weak.  When you fix, you see life as broken.  When you serve, you see life as whole.  Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.
This is a profound and beautiful statement.  It reminds me of this quote I've seen on the wall in my workplace:
If you come only to help me, you can go back home.  But if you consider my struggle as part of your struggle for survival, then maybe we can work together. --An Aboriginal woman
What do these mean in relation to my three months in India?

Right now I'm working on three overlapping proposals--my field study project proposal, my honors thesis proposal, and my IRB research proposal.  All three are based on my project that will take place in Dharamsala this summer.  All three are persuasive papers--I need to convince Field Studies, the Honors program, and the IRB that my research is both acceptable and worthwhile.  The IRB is particularly interested in the ways that my project will benefit the individuals who participate in my study or society as a whole, and they will weigh the benefits I describe against the potential risks to participants. Even if my project is a minimal risk endeavor, it still needs to  somehow benefit society or it is not worth the minimal risk.

Thus, the question is: what is my research really contributing to Tibetan society or to humanity?  Am I helping, fixing, or serving?  How can my research serve the Tibetan people?

Remen differentiates serving from helping:
Helping is not a relationship between equals.  A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality.  The danger in helping is that we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity or even wholeness.
She also distinguishes fixing from serving:
In fixing, we see others as broken, and respond to this perception with our expertise.  Fixers trust their own expertise but may not see the wholeness in another person or trust the integrity of the life in them.  When we serve we see and trust that wholeness.  We respond to it and collaborate with it.  And when we see the wholeness in another, we strengthen it.  They may then be able to see it for themselves for the first time.
One of the best points Remen makes is that "we serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy."  Another profound moment is when she notes that "in helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense a gratitude."

The point is that I cannot think of myself as an individual superior to the Tibetan people in any way.  If I come with a "save the world" mindset thinking I can help people and fix things, I am overstepping my bounds and developing an unhealthy perspective of Tibetan culture.  I am seeing the lives as broken or weak instead of whole, and I am seeing Tibetans as people who need my help.  Instead, I can look for opportunities to serve these individuals.  Who cannot benefit from service from another human being?

I need to be careful as I write about the benefits my research will have on Tibetans.  They are not abstract entities--they are souls.

Photo credit thanker 212


  1. Good insights Kristen. I really like this article... Hey, did you get a chance to post your IRB draft? I am not seeing it.

  2. Some good thoughts on how this article applies to your situation!

    Maybe a spiritual versus academic response is not always that different a thing?