The Urge to Help: Getting out of the Problem/Solution Paradigm


Perhaps you have seen David Brooks’s recent New York Times column on “How Do You Serve a Friend Who Is in Despair.” I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss this one, as well as adding some perspective of my own.

Brooks writes of his long-time friend, Peter Marks, beginning with the antics and joy of their boyhood friendship, much of which involved being campers and then staff at a summer camp. Just this evocative remembrance of those boyhood years, of having such a best friend, and of the worlds they dreamed up and adventures they had together, was worth the price of admission. Then this priceless line about Marks, “There was an exuberant goofballism about him.”

The bulk of the article, however, is about the years in which the dark fog of depression settled over Peter Marks, and how Brooks responded to his friend’s, and his own consequent travail. As someone who had an experience of debilitating depression myself, there were several things that struck me about this piece.

First, his description of depression. Of his friend, Brooks writes, “A light had gone out; there was an uncharacteristic flatness in his voice and a stillness in his eyes. One bright June afternoon, he pulled us aside and told us he wasn’t himself. He was doing what he loved most — playing basketball, swimming in the lake — but he couldn’t enjoy anything.”

“. . .  severe depression was revealed to me as an unimagined abyss. I learned that those of us lucky enough never to have experienced serious depression cannot understand what it is like just by extrapolating from our own periods of sadness. As the philosophers Cecily Whiteley and Jonathan Birch have written, it is not just sorrow; it is a state of consciousness that distorts perceptions of time, space, and self.”

Second, how Brooks responded to his friend’s pain. That is the larger question of the article, how to be a friend to someone who is in despair. Brooks initially did what we all do, attempting to cheer Marks up and offering advice on how to cope and recover.

“During the Covid pandemic, Pete and I spoke by phone. In the beginning, I made the mistake of trying to advise him about how he could lift his depression. He had earlier gone to Vietnam to perform eye surgeries for those who were too poor to afford them. I told him he should do that again, since he found it so tremendously rewarding. I did not realize it was energy and desire that he lacked, not ideas about things to do. It’s only later that I read that when you give a depressed person advice on how to get better, there’s a good chance all you are doing is telling the person that you just don’t get it.” (emphasis added)

Which segues into my third observation, advice has a double-whammy. It can make the recipient feel even more alone (you’re “telling the person you don’t get it”), and, that it can also sound like judgment. “What’s wrong with you? C’mon get over it! You have everything to live for!”

Over the years I have become more skeptical about the value of advice-giving. Not always, but often when we give advice there’s a distancing element at work (though we are likely unaware of that). We can’t or don’t want to see the other person’s situation or suffering as something that could happen to us. We want to keep it safely at a distance. We are likely not aware of that, but the person on the other end of our advice may be.

Presence and acknowledgment of the reality of the situation are, as Brooks discovered, what one can give. At its best presence is the opposite of distancing, or putting up the possibly unintended barrier of advice, with a side order of judgment. Presence entertains the possibility that this could happen to me (“there but for the grace of God go I”) and that I don’t, and cannot, really understand. But I can listen and acknowledge. The experience of being really heard, as someone observed, is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.

Which leads me back to a distinction I’ve been making in my recent writing and preaching, the biblical distinction between law and grace. Giving people advice on what they should do falls pretty much in the realm of law. “This is what you should do.” That never works. It doesn’t change anyone.

What changes a person is the experience of one-way love, which is one way to define grace: God’s one-way love. It is being loved when you are unloveable. It is being loved when you feel you have nothing whatsoever to offer anyone else or the world. Which is another pretty good definition of depression. You are a nil. You got nothing. Emptied out. It may not be true on the face of things, which some will be eager to tell you, but from the inside that is exactly how it is.

Brooks again:

“I learned, very gradually, that a friend’s job in these circumstances is not to cheer the person up. It’s to acknowledge the reality of the situation; it’s to hear, respect, and love the person; it’s to show that you haven’t given up on him or her, that you haven’t walked away.”

In our culture we prefer to see things as problems that have a solution. Great when it works. But not everything in life, and arguably most of what is most important, doesn’t fit the problem/solution frame. Doctors are notorious for abandoning patients they cannot “fix.” So hanging in there, as a friend or family member, even when there is no ready fix or even explanation — that is grace. And it can be a hard and a costly grace. It is the one thing needed.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.