Have you ever tried to help someone, but they got annoyed at you? Pretty outrageous, right? I read a story related to this problem that I thought was quite enlightening.
During the Great Depression (1929–1941), there was a small grocery store in a town in southeastern Idaho. The store was owned by Mr. Millers, who would set up a small table outside his store, and people on their way home could stop by to pick up some fresh produce. At the time, both food and money were in severe shortage, so people started trading items.
In the town lived a few extremely poor families, and the children would often visit Mr. Millers’ store. However, they did not come to buy anything, they simply wanted to admire the rare and precious items that Mr. Millers sold. Despite this, Mr. Millers always happily welcomed them the same way he welcomed every other customer.
“Hi Barry! How are you today?”
“Hi Mr. Millers! I’m pretty good, thanks. Those peas sure look good.”
“Really? They aren’t actually that great. Barry, how’s your mother’s health?”
“She’s getting better.”
“That’s good to hear. Would you like anything today?”
“No Mr. Millers. I still think those peas are really fresh though.”
“Do you want to bring some home?”
“No Mr. Millers, I don’t have money to buy them.”
“Do you have anything to trade with me? You don’t have to have money.”
“Oh…all I have are some glass balls that I won.”
“Really? Let me have a look.”
“Sure, here you go. This one is the best.”
“Yes, I can see that. Hmm… the only thing is, this is a blue ball, but I want a red one. Do you have a red one at home?”
“How about this, you can take a bag of peas home first. Next time you come, please bring me a red glass ball.”
“Definitely! Thanks so much Mr. Millers!”
Every time Mr. Millers talks with these impoverished little kids, Mrs. Millers would stand silently at the side with a smile. She knows this kind of game all too well, and she understands her husband’s intentions. The town has two other boys who are very similar to Barry. Their families are all struggling, they don’t have any money to buy anything, nor do they have any valuable possessions to trade.
To help them without making them feel bad or embarrassed, Mr. Millers would pretend to haggle over a glass ball. For example, this time Barry has a blue glass ball, so Mr. Millers asks for a red one. When Barry brings the red glass ball next time, Mr. Millers will ask to see a blue or orange one instead, and tell them to bring a bag of produce home.
After many years, Mr. Millers became ill and passed away. All the townsfolk went to his funeral and expressed their condolences to Mrs. Millers. In the long line of people who were going to deliver a eulogy, there were three men who stood out from the rest of the crowd. One was wearing a military uniform; the other two were wearing a top hat, a white dress shirt, and a well-ironed suit. The three men all looked very dignified.
As Mrs. Millers stood by Mr. Miller’s coffin, the three men came up and hugged her one by one, and each gave some words quietly. Her tears flowed as she watched the three men stand in front of the coffin and put their warm hands on Mr. Miller’s cold, pale hands. These three men were the three poor children with whom Mr. Millers often traded his food for their glass balls and other small items. When they hugged Mrs. Millers, they told her how grateful they are to Mr. Millers for “trading” with them during those difficult years.
Now, Mr. Millers would no longer change his mind about what color or size of glass balls he wants, and these three men no longer need to rely on assistance for their livelihoods, but they will never forget Mr. Millers. Although Mr. Millers never became rich, he had perhaps the most rich and valuable life in all of Idaho. And now, in his lifeless right hand, the three men placed three red glass balls as a symbol of their appreciation.
Helping others is a virtue, but sometimes, in our efforts to help others, we unconsciously show off our ability and make others feel embarrassed or disrespected. In that case, are we really helping them, or are we showing off our abilities and looking down on others?
To help others without making it obvious is a rare and precious attitude. This was what Mr. Millers did. This is not just sympathy, but real love.
(Story Source: Harvard Family Instruction)
I’ll start by sharing a failure that I hope you can avoid. Recently, I started working with two other English teachers. Unlike me, they never had formal English teaching training or experience, so I offered to coach them. One of them was very eager to learn, and she asked me to observe her class and give feedback. The other one had been teaching a class his own way for a year, and he didn’t ask me to observe his class until the other teacher pushed him to.
After observing his class, I gave some critiques and even took initiative to record a video of how I would plan a lesson and make the PPT. In my mind, I was doing him a big favor. I am quite busy, but I decided that helping him is more important right now because his matter is time sensitive. Not only did I make a lesson for him, I also recorded the whole process to help him learn. However, my actions were somewhat interpreted as an arrogant show-off.
From that experience, I learned the importance of being sensitive to others’ ego when trying to help them. The fact is, we all have an ego, so I am certainly not looking down on him. If I could go back in time, I would make a lesson plan and PPT and say, “I just happened to have some free time recently, and I was interested in your course, so I tried making a lesson plan and PPT. Could you check them and let me know what you think?” If he didn’t have time to look at my proposed plan before he taught his class, I wouldn’t be upset. After all, my goal should be to provide reference material, not to tell him what to do.
Aside from that failure, I also have successes. For example, I’m living in the same building as my teacher right now, and I want to be of service to him by giving him Tui Na massage before bed to help him sleep better. Rather than saying, “Teacher, I can help you sleep better by giving you Tui Na massage at night,” I said, “Teacher, I want to learn and practice Tui Na massage so that I can massage my parents better at home. Could I practice on you at night, and you tell me if it helped you sleep better?” This way, my teacher was happy to let me massage him.
Another time, a colleague and I were discussing who would drive a guest from the other building over to our building in the morning. Later he messaged me saying that the guest needs to be picked at 5:15AM, and that he could do it. I knew that 5:15 is much earlier than his usual wake up time, and that he needs the extra sleep more than me, but I did not say that. Instead, I said, “Oh I wake up around that time anyway, so I can go pick them up.” He doesn’t know what time I get up, but he knows that I get up earlier than him. When he saw my message, he said, “OK thank you!”
Wanting to help others is a good intention, but we have to be careful to not come off as arrogant, or else the other person may feel uncomfortable or even resent us! We should not point out their problems or show off how we are better. If possible, we should make it seem like they are helping us.