Lao Tzu says, “Teach without talking.” I had a teacher like that once. This teacher was different from others I have had, in that it was green and didn’t move much, let alone talk. In fact, it was a rubber plant who had had a bad childhood. Its previous owner had kept it in a dim corner for years, and it had had to grow way out to get some sun. The trunk or main stem gradually became so bent that the slightest touch could send it toppling over, spilling dirt on the floor.
Eventually the strain of fighting gravity wore it down, as hard lives will do, and it became infected with no less than three fungi or molds. It had white spots, gray patches and black growths on every leaf. When I took some leaves to the nursery for diagnosis, the staff said, “don’t bring those things in here! They’ll infect our whole stock!” They sold me some antifungal spray, but advised me to throw out this plant to protect the others.
I did put it out for one day, but something stopped me. Along with MS, I have severe scoliosis, a marked twist of the spine that bends me to the left. Perhaps I identified with that twisted, long-ignored plant. Anyway, I brought it in and stripped off all the leaves except one, the least infected. Without much hope, I washed the whole thing down with the antifungal spray. I brought the plant up my room and, so it wouldn’t fall over, placed it so that the bend in the stem leaned up against the edge of my writing desk.
For the first time in its life, the plant was supported. It took off. I mean, within three weeks that thing had so many big, beautiful, healthy leaves it was glorious to see. Even the diseased leaf got better, although not quite as pretty as the ones that had never been sick. It is still growing furiously, as if to make up for lost time, still twisted, but now perhaps the healthiest plant in the apartment.
Of course, this rubber tree is just a plant, and plants are notoriously hard to kill. But how many people have grown up in dark corners, twisting themselves into weird shapes, trying to find some love? How many become sick or suffer simply because they lack support? And how many, even with a major illness, could grow spectacularly if they made a few life changes?
People need support, too. But most tell me that they don’t like to ask for help, because they don’t want to impose. In reality, most people are desperate to help. I see this every day from my mobility scooter. Last Sunday, an old man, whom I didn’t know, noticed me approaching my building’s front door. Pushing off with his cane for propulsion, he went into his fastest hobble and raced to open the door for me.
I thought this was very sweet, but he couldn’t open the door all the way, and his own body took up some of the space I needed to get through. So he wasn’t really helping much, but he was trying. I smiled at him, grabbed the open door, and said, “I can take it from here. You’ve been a big help.”
Thinking we are helping when we’re really getting in the way is common for most of us. A young neighbor named Marcie told me about her efforts to help her roommate, Jenny, with some relationship issues. Jenny’s boyfriend had been mistreating her, including some pushing and shoving and a lot of insults. “It’s been weeks,” Marcie said. “I’ve been telling her to leave him, but she won’t listen. I gave her an article on communication skills and another one on abusive boyfriends, but it hasn’t helped. Now she’s starting to take it out on me, slamming doors, not even saying hello.”
“Ah,” I replied. “So, she is still struggling with her boyfriend, but now it’s become your fault.”
I told her about standing in the doorway you’re trying to open. Advising someone to do something that they already know they should do rarely helps. “Just be there for her. Lead without leading,” I advised, borrowing from Lao Tzu.
Marcie is 23 years old and a senior at San Francisco State. She is planning to go into a Master’s program and become a family therapist. She is definitely tuned into helping people, so my advice to ‘lay off’ was hard for her to hear.
But I guess she tried. The next time I saw her, I asked about Jenny. “Nothing’s changed,” she said. “I’m getting tired of it. But I see there’s not much I can do.”
“You’re probably doing more than you know,” I said. And for once, I was right. Two weeks later, Marcie told me things were much better. Jenny had made her own decision to break up with her abusive man, and the two roommates had celebrated with an evening out, with a Best Friends Forever theme.
So people, like my rubber plant, do need support. The problem is figuring out how to help, and frequently just being there, like my desk was for the plant, is the most effective approach. When someone is struggling with a difficult task, like getting a device or program to work, it often helps to move closer to them and just observe. (Although some tasks, like folding laundry, benefit from actual physical help.)
When I fall on a sidewalk, I don’t want people pulling me up right away. I’ll just fall again, because I need time to recover. What works is to ask, “Do you want some help?” and “How can I help you?” and take direction from the person in need.
The best help I ever got with a fall was from my friend Maureen Evans, poet and author of Eat Tweet, the Twitter cookbook. I was going to drive her home from writers’ group, and as we walked to my car, I fell and couldn’t get up right away. After a moment, she did something amazing. She sat down on the sidewalk next to me and said, “Tell me if I need to do anything.” She waited there with me for a couple of minutes, until I was able to get up by myself and take her home.
I have never forgotten that beautiful gesture. That was truly helping without helping, doing without doing.