Helping the helpers

Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast, and such a horror was on him that he was blind and sick. ‘King’s man! King’s man!’ his heart cried within him. But his will made no answer, and his body shook. He dared not open his eyes or look up.

Then out of the blackness in his mind he thought that he heard Dernhelm speaking; yet now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice that he had known. […] But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes. Into Merry’s mind flashed the memory of the face that he saw at the riding from Dunharrow: the face of one that goes seeking death, having no hope.

Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.

J.R.R. TolkienThe Return of the King


For as long as I can remember, my parents have been at the center of their church community. I was never sure if they would be home for dinner or if they’d be visiting someone sick or in jail, or helping with some church event. Both of them are still running the youth group and teaching Sunday School, more than a decade since my sister and I graduated. People still call at all hours to talk with my mom about their problems, to the point that she eventually went to get professional training for counseling. My dad helped run summer bible schools for kids in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood into his seventies. Out of a church of several hundred people, I’d guess that about a dozen people contribute at this level.

(For comparison, my mom just spent five months help to care for my sister’s newborn, and she now looks healthier and more well-rested than I can ever remember. As I understand it, this is a job that involves near-constant attention and not a lot of sleep. But she says that it’s quite relaxing to be able to focus on just one thing at a time.)

My Burning Man camp operates on a roughly similar model, scaled down an order of magnitude. The week-long burn is held on a dried-out playa with no plumbing or electricity, and camps are fully responsible for their own food, water, and shelter. So starting several months before the event, we start dividing up responsibilities – who is bringing food, arranging for water delivery, arriving early to prepare the campsite, staying late to make sure everything is packed away. But in practice there are about 5 people who end up shouldering most of the burden. I have a vivid memory of watching one friend try to pack up the entire camp by herself while everyone around her either tried to sleep off the previous night’s bender or rooted around for some way to keep it going. She knew that as the week ended, people would start to slip away in cars and buses, and only she would be left to make sure everything made it back in the trailer.

As another example, some campmates will cook meals for the camp ahead of time, but there’s only one couple who lugs the hundred-pound cooler full of those meals onto a plane and gets it to the playa, along with a U-Haul full of Costco supplies. They’ve had this responsibility for every camp year that I’m aware of.

I think of people like these as the Helpers, as in Mr. Rogers’ advice to “always look for the helpers”.


I hate being one of the Helpers. I don’t know if it’s from carrying too many group projects in school or reading too much game theory, but I just can’t stand being part of a group where I’m putting in more than everyone else. I start feeling trapped, constantly looking around to see how much extra load I have to pick up from the people around me.

However, I find that I can work incredibly hard when I’m working alongside a helper. If there’s just one or two people who are bearing more responsibility than me, any lingering resentment is washed out by an incredible sense of sympathy for them and I find that I want to do everything I can to lighten their load. It’s also a lot easier for me to recruit others to help when I’m doing it on behalf of someone else. If it’s just me, I tend to think that it’ll be easier to just do it myself.

I think of the Helpers as the limiting factor for any community. To transform a network of transactional relationships into a community of deep reciprocal bonds, there just has to be a core group of people willing to put in more than they get out. They’re an invaluable bunch and it’s a tragedy whenever one of them burns out. So this sense of admiration and protectiveness quickly kicks in for me when I see them in action.