When I was in elementary school, my mom took a remote job, working from a home office and desperately trying to make 9-year-old Liz understand that I couldn’t slam the piano keys or do backflips over couches while she was on a call (or, ideally, ever).
Despite not having any understanding of what her job entailed, I remember being fascinated by her office, the desk, the computer, the filing cabinets. And I so wanted to be a part of it.
On a particularly boring summer day, I remember asking her if I could help. I wanted to play career. And so she gave me a stack of folders and told me to alphabetize them in the filing cabinets.
I was thrilled. In hindsight, she probably was too knowing she could get some uninterrupted work done.
I sat on the floor and meticulously put each folder in its place in the cabinet. Or so I thought.
What I didn’t realize is the system she had for organizing folders. Even now, I can’t explain how I got mixed up, but somehow, I filed the folders incorrectly and instead of helping my mom, ended up creating an even more time-consuming mess.
I was thinking about this recently through the lens of intention. You best believe my youngest child energy was thrilled with the idea of being “grown up.” I was going to help my mom! I got to be a big kid, pretending I had a real job that wasn’t just following my brothers everywhere.
You see, I had really good intentions. I wanted to help. But instead, I created a problem and my mother had to spend time undoing my mistake before she could move forward.
Now let’s think beyond file folders. Let’s think about the ways we show up for people in our communities and the ways we serve. Are we sure it’s the right thing? Are we sure it’s what they need? And on a more interpersonal level, what about in our relationships? Are we sure we know what our loved ones need? I mean, are we really 100% sure?
You can have the best intentions in the world. You can think you’re making a big difference and helping folks out. But what if you aren’t? What if you are causing unintentional harm?
I remember once reading about an international aid organization who had raised money to provide some sort of farming machinery to a rural, under-resourced area. They didn’t talk to the community first or train the farmers on how to use it or provide any context or information. As you might guess, after the aid organization left, the machine went unused. Finally, the villagers took it apart and used it for shelter or spare parts or sold the metal for a fraction of what the machine cost the organization. The organization meant well. I’m sure they had good intentions. But they didn’t ask the folks they wanted to support what they needed.
There are a lot of ways to serve in ethical, sustainable, and affirming ways. But they all start with conversations, education, and understanding. If you want to make a difference in the world, figure out what the world needs. Now scale down. If you want to make a difference in your hometown, talk to the folks in your hometown. How can you really help? Don’t assume you know. Listen. It’s only then that you can provide meaningful service and support in ways that make a real difference.