A Quaker Koan: How Can I Help without Doing Anything to Help?

A koan is a Buddhist mechanism for opening to a larger reality by presenting a situation that cannot possibly be solved through the intellect.

I’ve noticed more and more commonly that I have a hard time staying neutral when others speak about suffering in some way. I’ve also become aware of the extent to which people in Quaker discussions share that condition. We move so quickly to fixing, offering solutions, trying to solve the person’s difficulty.

At the 2007 Friends General Conference Gathering, I was acutely aware of my own discomfort while listening to the plenary address given by Cécile Nyiramana about the recent history of genocide and the resulting conditions in Rwanda. The story went on for some time, and I got to a point where I could hardly stand hearing any more. I wanted to solve it! Do something! Make it not be happening! And from some people’s questions to her, I imagined they wanted that, too.

As I investigate this condition closely, I realize that my desire to solve the situation came from not being able to accept what was happening, not tolerating the inner pain and uncertainty I was feeling.Most of all, I wished for my own discomfort to go away!This is not the best impetus for helping. Buddhists understand that one must come to a place of accepting the reality of the situation. Only then will the mind be clear enough to know what to do. Early Quakers knew that waiting was important, so that God’s guidance could come through; otherwise, our actions are about ourselves, not the workings of the Spirit.

Because of my work in education, I have thought and read a lot about learning and about education (not the same things). John Holt and Maria Montessori wrote about how unsolicited" helping" can actually be a hindrance to learning. The subtle message to the learner, albeit undesired, is "you couldn’t do this without my help," or worse, "you’re so stupid you can’t figure it out by yourself." However unintentionally, unrequested interventions often undermine a person’s learning and actively disempower him or her. This shocked me at first. Then I started seeing how it operates everywhere!

When someone in our community conveys that she or he is hurting, or confused, or pondering something, I’ve observed that many of us (myself included) want to jump right in with suggestions.When people do that tome, I hear their good intentions, but the rush toward solutions is quite alienating. I feel increasingly disconnected from the people. There is nothing that necessarily needs solving. I just want someone to be there with me. Join me in this human condition, a condition of the heart. See me; hear me; be here. There’s no need to leap to the intellect; that’s not how we connect. If I’m hurting, just have compassion—shared empathy—and trust that it’s enough to sit with me without flinching. Parker Palmer puts this so eloquently somewhere in his writing about meeting someone on his or her deathbed; there truly is nothing to be done. His advice is to be neither evasive (don’t look away from the condition) nor invasive (don’t try to change it).

Can we Quakers make this a regular practice? For myself, I hope so. I hold it as an aspiration, an inspiration.

Elizabeth Barnard

Elizabeth Barnard is a member of Twin Cities Meeting in St. Paul, Minn.