When faced with the struggle of others, doing nothing can be the best- and hardest- thing to do.
The willingness and desire to help others is one of the most beautiful things I see in people. It doesn’t get a lot of (the right kind of) press, but our capacity for empathy truly is one of our strengths as a species. When it comes to helping others though, it’s hard to keep your desire to help from overriding whether or not you are helping.
I got a very object lesson in that in the last few weeks, and a dear friend of mine has reinforced it.
My wife and I had an outstanding honeymoon in Ireland, but coming home was a bit hellacious. We’d been up and traveling for close to 26 hours between airline mess-ups, missed flights, security lines, and just camping out in airports for hours on end. We did finally make it home, but the next day Emily and I were feeling “off.” I had a sniffle and a sore throat that I attributed to the airports, and Em woke up with a bit of a fever.
I had taken a COVID test the day before and it came up negative though, so I chalked it up to a mild cold I got on the airplane and a bit of jet lag. I’d told my team I’d be back in the kitchen to help with a big order, and I was going to be there. “No excuses,” after all, especially not for a sniffle. I got in and wore a mask- after all, I wasn’t an idiot– and caught up on what went on while I was gone. I decorated a couple pies, packed a few things, but otherwise my team had everything in hand. I figured I’d just do a little inventory then head home. I’d made my appearance, helped out a bit, then got out of the way.
Then my boss arrived and asked about the mask. “Oh, I’m just feeling a little off from the plane. I took a test and it was negative.”
”Ok, but you’re still sick with something. Why are you here?”
”Uh… I said I would be in to help and I was going to check in?”
”Ok. Do it and go home.”
I got home, and my sore throat had turned into a gross cough. I took another test to be sure. It came up positive. I called everyone immediately and apologized, telling them to test. I had fucked up. I’d had the best intentions, but I risked the health and safety of my team.
Too little, too late. One of my staff was infected. We had to shut down for a week. All because I wanted to be in the kitchen.
All I did was decorate some pies, walk around, and get caught up. I wanted to help though. I needed to help. I needed to be seen helping and leading from the front. It cost us a week of revenue because I was, in fact, an idiot who just couldn’t bear to stay home and do nothing. Ironically, that’s exactly what COVID made me and my wife do for a solid week.
I know not to come in to work sick. I tell my team to go home when they don’t feel well. I cover for them, and they cover for me when need be. That’s what a team is. I put that aside that day though, because my desire to be helpful overrode wondering how helpful I’d actually be- and my bakery paid the price.
I should have stayed home, had faith in my team to handle things, and done nothing for a minute– but I fucked up.
That was a very topical example, but I get that it’s not always a very familiar one. I know not all of my readers work in the kitchen. We’re not all familiar with the culture that brought up most cooks these days- the one that said “Jail, Hospital, or Morgue- if you aren’t there, you’re at your station on time.”
I’ll bet you know someone like this though:
A dear friend of mine has lately gotten into a serious “healthy mindset” shtick. They post their philosophy daily on Instagram along with pictures and videos of their exercise and diet. It’s working out for them, and I’m thrilled. They deserve every inch of success they have, and I love the fact that they want to help others find the same success. They want to be helpful.
What’s the problem with that? Nothing- except that in trying to be helpful, they aren’t always being helpful, and are confused when people don’t react positively to their help.
“I don’t understand. Why do you keep shooting my ideas down? I just want to help you.”
I have no doubt that they want to help others. It’s something I truly love about them- but they don’t always stop to ask if they are being helpful.
“I can’t just do nothing though. It hurts me to see people struggling and not help. I feel useless.”
I know that feeling very well. It’s hard. It sucks. It’s something that people who live with and love those with mental illness or are neurodivergent deal with all the time. “My loved one is suffering and I don’t know how to help, but it hurts me to not do anything.”
We love to believe that we can do anything, that nothing is beyond our reach, and that we can control and deal with anything with the right attitude, mindset, routine, etcetera. That’s bullshit. We can’t. Some shit is beyond our control. We are just regular, ordinary humans, and we are not omnipotent.
Sometimes the best, only, and hardest thing we can do is nothing. Nothing but listen and love.
My team didn’t need me in the kitchen. They needed to know I supported them, was available, and had their back.
When people are struggling with things only they can deal with, what they need most from their loved ones is just to be heard and to be loved.
It’s hard. It sucks. It’s beautiful. And doing nothing but listen can have more of an impact than any amount of “mindset” or coaching you think you can offer.
No one needs coaching more than they need love and support.