The helping paradox

We, as human beings, have had the fortune (or misfortune, for some) to interact with one another in matters of the mind and the heart since the beginning of time. As social creatures, we must rely on one another to share this spinning ball of flaming rock and cooperate to a certain degree to survive. However, not all cooperation is created equal, and I would like to propose rethinking the manner in which one cooperates. At times, helping is not helpful. Not simply because of the possible ineffectiveness of the action, but because the very concept of helping is not helpful. Even those with the best intentions can and do commit the repeated mistake of falling victim to the Helping Paradox.

In human relationships where one party is perceived as lacking in an area with respect to another and a more equitable system is wished to be established, absent any additional parties, there are three possible options.

The first is for the favored party to fix the other, to forcibly change and manufacture its ideal version of its colleague, violating their autonomy. It dictates by definition that there is something deeply wrong with the unfavored party and they cannot possibly better themselves without intervention. This happens most often with those marginalized from society, those whose voice simply does not fit the norm. As their very viewpoint is considered inappropriate, they must surely be broken, no? Perhaps they do not comprehend the help one offers, but it is for their own good. Thus, it is only logical that it must be done, is it not? Where does one draw the line?

It is apparent that fixing a person might, then, be a violently dehumanizing process. Many comprehend that forcibly changing someone is not the best method with which to provide support. Yet, what about unconsciously changing someone with the same objective?

The second option of support is for the favored party to help the other. Though better, for it does not alienate the unfavored party from its sovereignty, it establishes the helping party as indisputably superior. Those that receive help are only raised up to the standards that befit the perspective of the first party. That is to say, what we call helping is one-sided. Regardless of the willingness or lack thereof of the unfavorable party, the final word about what they should become is given to the one in a position of supremacy. Ultimately, the unfavorable have no control beyond accepting or refusing the help, and it is not tailored for them but for the favorable party that knows what they want them to become. At times, this might coincide with the desires of the unfavorable party, but we must recognize that they lack genuine freedom conventionally. Many help others without taking this into account, and this is the origin of the aforementioned paradox. At times, the more one wishes to help another, the less helpful they actually become. This is because helping, in praxis, is not equitative. There is a correct way, the way of the helper, and the incorrect way, the way of the helped. Thus, we run into the same conundrum: is their way truly inappropriate? Is this coercion genuinely adequate if we believe it benefits them?

Though there is a reasonable argument to be made in certain situations, note that I am speaking of the act in itself across our fundamental human experience. This is not a matter of a specific discipline, but of sharing opinions, comparing reasonings and addressing problems. It is a matter of being human with one another, and what that means is simple in theory but so nuanced in practice. For perhaps not all cooperation is created equal, but humans certainly are, no? If we believe all human beings are of equal value, then there should be no place for a favored party to even exist in its traditional meaning. One cannot build stairs to a place of equal altitude.

This leads us to the final option of support, one that is very rarely explored: for the parties to serve one another. That is, to recognize the validity and value of each and to actively teach to and learn from one another. This option recognizes the world does not fit a linear spectrum and that in order to engage with one another genuinely it is required to grow with one another. There is no objective better or worse, only humans traveling the river that is the passage of time, each with their own distinct and powerful objectives, but none that would befit a lack of modesty. When one serves there is no favored or unfavored party, there is only the teacher-student and the student-teacher. In the most humble method of cooperation; both parties realize they can learn from one another and there is no need for hierarchy. They are both human after all, no? Equal in value, equal when born, equal when dead.

Thus, is it not logical to realize this? The wisest, most educated scholar can always learn from the curiosity of a child. Cooperation is not a binary, cyclical process. It is messy, it is not unidirectional, and, most importantly, it is profoundly human.

Then, dear reader, next time you come across someone that could use a bit of cooperation, why don’t you take the time to learn something from them too in the process? True growth will always derive from unthought-of ideas. There is naught to regret and infinity to learn.

Carlos A. Basurto is a freshman at Notre Dame ready to delve into his Philosophy major with the hopes of adding the burden of a computer science major on top of that. When not busy you can find him consuming yet another 3+ hour-long analysis video of a show he has yet to watch or masochistically completing every achievement from a variety of video games. Now with the power to channel his least insane ideas, feel free to talk about them via email at (he is, tragically, very fond of speaking further about anything at all).

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.