The Death Throes of an Omniscient “Helper”

By Keith Miller | May 11, 2009

Keith, my college aged kids and my husband claim that I am trying to control them when I offer suggestions-when all I am trying to do is help them. How can I help them see that I want them to make their own decisions?


Ooooh!  That question strikes too close to home. Listen to a telephone conversation from my journal that I had with a daughter about to graduate from college:  “Of course you can do whatever you want to, honey.  I just want you to be happy.”  I sigh into the phone to my almost grown daughter in college.  “But, I think you ought to call her back and tell her you won’t do it.” As I say these things into the telephone, I notice how my voice is both raised and syrupy in a strangely familiar way.

Silence on the other end of the line. And in my imagination saw in that instant the face of my dear departed enmeshing mother who always “only wanted the best for me” and always wanted me to make “my own choices”-unless they were unlike the choices she would make. She was amazing, thoughtful and generous to a fault, but she could control everyone in the family within a hundred-mile radius with a disappointed sigh.

Good Lord, can it be that without ever knowing it I have become just like her and am controlling my family?

Well, I hope everything turns out okay,” I say into the void on the line, realizing belatedly that my daughter had just wanted to share with me and I’d taken over again and tried to “fix” her, implying unconsciously that she couldn’t figure out what to do if I didn’t-and she hadn’t even asked for my advice. I’d screwed it up again-for the thousandth time.

“Goodbye, Dad,” I hear the discouraged and irritated voice as she hangs up-and I remember how much her voice sounded like my own younger voice when I used to come up against that wall of sugary (but steely) shaming control my mother unconsciously used on me.

I want to call my daughter back and tell her that I love her and am only trying to help, that I only give suggestions “for her own good.” But then I remember that it never worked when my mother did that to me.  And with a start I realize, “Oh my gosh-it’s true!  I’ve turned into my mother-and I never saw it coming.”

As I’m sitting here looking out at the waving sea grass on the dunes, I realize the horrible truth about me: I try to control and “fix” people close to me because I feel uncomfortable when they don’t do things the way I’d do them. I’m really giving advice to make me feel more comfortable and less afraid of what might happen.

I seem to feel, at some primordial level, that I am the unofficial director of the life dramas each of my family members has been given to act in. Some white and gray crying gulls flutter and settle among some Goat’s Foot Morning Glory vines winding their way across the big dune outside my window. I realize that when I, unbidden, meddle in the lives of my dear ones, I am playing God as I try to be the “producer and director” of a drama in which I am only another actor-who hasn’t yet gotten his own lines straight.

What can I do?? How can I tell whether I’m controlling or making helpful suggestions?

I called a friend whose kids are grown, and ask my question. And my friend said, “Keith, if I want to see whether I’m actually helping instead of controlling, I try to notice what happens-what their response is-when I think I’m helping them. If they get mad at me and clam up when I ‘help’ them,” he said, “it’s a pretty good clue that I am doing something besides helping.”

Now-25 years later-when I feel the urge to “help” (teach) one of my (now grown) children, I can sometimes say, “Did you just share with me or would you like a suggestion?” And they usually say, “Thanks, Dad. I’m just sharing.”  But sometimes they say, “No, I’m asking what you think I ought to do.” Then and only then do I feel ok about making concrete suggestions.  This new way of “helping” has made life a lot more peaceful-when I can do it.

God, help me to quit playing your role and ‘teaching’ my family all the time. Today I can see again that I’m just not cast right for your part.  In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 “Fathers don’t exasperate your children.” Ephesians 6:4 The Message

 “Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths.” James 3:1 The Message

Topics: Christian Living, Weekly Devotional | Comments Off on The Death Throes of an Omniscient “Helper”

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With clear analysis and poignant witness, Keith leads us into wise intimacies of the soul with God. The Taste of New Wine, fresh reporting on the life of Christ, was important; this one, wisdom from a veteran, is necessary.
Eugene H. Peterson, author/translator of The Message
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