To serve and not to "help": The key to meaningful humanitarian efforts
by Sean Jobst
April 15, 2015
"Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!" This is the succinct title of a lecture by Ernesto Sirolli, an Italian sustainable development expert who heads the Sirolli Institute. He cited the most important lesson he learned from his time in Zambia as to start listening to people, rather than merely assuming they want your "help."
"We Western people are imperialist, colonialist missionaries, and there are only two ways we deal with people: We either patronize them, or we are paternalistic," Sirolli says. "The two words come from the Latin root 'pater,' which means 'father.' But they mean two different things. Paternalistic, I treat anybody from a different culture as if they were my children. 'I love you so much.' Patronizing, I treat everybody from another culture as if they were my servants."
If you go to another person's country and land, you better damn well humble yourself to listen to them, rather than approaching them like you instinctively know somehow what's best for them. You may be so blinded by your paternalistic sense of superiority - even if couched in "liberal" rhetoric of "humanitarianism" - to even realize in the process you become nothing but a hubristic jackass, your own ignorance reflecting back at you through the mirror of your own self-perceptions.
One of the most life-changing experiences in my own life was my visit to the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. I was blessed to have been hosted by a traditional Lakota, from whom I learned so much about their own cultural traditions and worldview. I witnessed this dichotomy of patronizing/paternalism in action from the wasicu' (white people), who came there with an agenda disguised as "helping" - they were exploiting the people and either misappropriating their culture or forcing their own culture on them, or (more often) a combination of the two.
So it was that I picked up another crucial learning experience: There is a difference between "helping" and serving. It was only when I reflected deep within my own soul about the differences, that I came to better appreciate the title of Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr.'s book, We Talk, You Listen. I was impressed by the Lakota tradition of the Sacred Pipe, the holder of which talks while the other people listen. The Sacred Pipe is symbolic of the connection between the physical and spiritual realms.
In the same way, I have learned by humbling yourself to truly serve people and not merely "help" them, the way you start to listen to people - and I refer to "listening" in the way of using all the senses to understand - will be a mirror into your own soul, reflecting back at you and allowing you to learn so much about your own experiences, your own culture, your own self.
Our own humanitarian relief efforts in any place and toward any people should be guided by such deeply heart-felt considerations to serve, to approach people as equals and draw upon all of our own experiences, so the wholeness of our selves and serve the wholeness in other people. There is mutual benefit here, as you learn so much about yourself as well in the process.
On the other hand, to "help" people means you're already assuming they are "lesser" and so you use your "stronger" strength in a paternalistic way that actually takes away more than gives to them. The only thing that benefits in the process is your own ego and this can never be a good thing.