two women sitting on a rooftop in Detroit, Michigan

The urge to help others is very much a part of being human. There are so many ways to serve others. Maybe you help people as part of your job, in your family or social groups, or by volunteering time or donating money. Maybe you have reached out to someone who seemed down and out.

All of those acts are wonderful and beautiful and important. But, sadly, as Anne Lamott knows, there’s a real limit to how much help you can give. Here’s another piece of wisdom from her recent book Almost Everything:

“Not one single person in history has gotten an alcoholic sober. (Maybe you’ll be the first. But—and I say this with love—I doubt it.) If it is someone else’s problem, you probably don’t have the solution.”

This idea is certainly very close to her heart, as she comes back to it later in the book, delving into it with more specificity—heartrending specificity. As it turns out, Lamott did know alcoholics whom she tried to help. She reached out, she cared, she kept trying, she didn’t lose hope. But she could only do so much. It did not matter how close she was to the person, by blood or spiritual kinship. It did not matter how much she cared. In the end, all love and friendship and suggestions and urgent recommendations cannot move a mountain, unless the mountain moves itself.

This does not mean we should stop trying to help others. But Lamott turns the idea upside down by noting that her need to help others is actually a personal issue that she struggles with. Helping others can make one feel important. It’s a form of perfectionism. It’s a way of proving your worth, to yourself and others. In that respect, it can be counterproductive; no one wants “help” from someone who’s self-righteous, pushy, or otherwise overbearing.

It’s difficult to know when to try to help someone and when to back off. It’s difficult to know which acts are truly helpful, and which just get in the way. But let’s not give up. Let’s keep trying to figure these things out. And remember: sometimes the smallest acts help the most.

Is there someone in your life who seems to need help?