Helping someone out of a hole

March 7, 2019 in News

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: When someone is in a hole, find a way to help them without getting into the hole yourself!

One of the things I learned from accompanying a close friend who suffered from severe depression was that there was a real danger of falling into the hole with him. Especially someone that you are very close to, you can’t bear to see them suffering and you want to do everything you can to help – you would gladly give up your life for them in some ways. And the trouble is often you do, trying to help you end up being dragged into the hole yourself and then you have two people in a hole and no way out!

In order to help someone you have to tie yourself to a tree first. This feels all wrong, surely my focus should be on the person and the distress that they are in and how I can be with them? The problem with this understandable emotional response is that it doesn’t help the person in the long run, I may feel better in the short term but very little changes. This is the Jesuit discerned response: ‘what is the best thing to do (called the magis)’ as opposed to ‘what is my first reaction’?

There is a rule in life saving that you have to secure your own position before you can throw a line to someone else. Paradoxically it feels selfish but it is a crucial part of an effective strategy that has self preservation as the cornerstone in genuinely helping others. The basic sobering insight is that if you can’t secure yourself you can’t help them; there is no point in having two people lost in a raging current, especially as one is lost needlessly. Also, a person in trouble is under stress and will involuntarily climb all over a rescuer in order to save their own skin. Clearly some clear thinking and discernment is needed to order to effectively help someone.

The real question is what will really help the person in trouble? Often it is only ‘professional’ help or a ‘detached (ie. not emotionally involved) solution that will work long term or at least motivating the person to seek some answers themselves. Just simply taking control and taking all responsibility, which might be appropriate in extreme circumstances, normally is of no long term value to the person.

Here some of the principles of Spiritual Direction are useful: to listen well, not to take responsibility, to explore together what the options are and to help the person themselves make a decision. This is hard to do however, as our instinct is to jump in, to give answers, solve problems and to take over- however, often it is more about us than helping the person. There needs to be a built in pause or reflection of moment to separate my feelings and emotional response from a considered compassionate response.

Handling the natural human emotional response to crisis is one of the key elements. We automatically empathise with someone in distress and are drawn to comfort them and express solidarity with words and gestures. Often this is not enough of itself though, the child trapped in the collapsed building needs to know that help is nearby but someone has to bring in the specialist lifting and rescue equipment.

Ignatian discernment is useful here in that it recognises all the complex pressures of a situation, especially the emotional ones, and asks is to take a step back from the immediate situation to look at the bigger picture. What will really help the person is a tough question and sometimes requires tough love, not just acquiescence and emotional meltdown.

One of the things I learnt with my friend was that there were two messages he needed to hear from me in the fog of depression: the first was my care and concern for him, but the second, much more difficult, was a challenge to change behaviour and get help on the underlying problems, many of which were beyond me. The danger was that in the understandable love for a dear one, I would take on too much responsibility for him and end up not being of help and getting into mental health difficulties myself. A terrible catch 22.

This was a tough learning curve, when to reach out and support and when to pull back and point out some external supports or counselling. There is so much at stake that it is hard to think clearly at times and we need to have courage to ask for help ourselves. This is the ‘tying of yourself to a tree’ that keeps you out of the same hole’. Of course, Christ is the real anchor or solid foundation in all of this, to trust that there is a way through difficult situations, that life has meaning and I can pray and discern even in the mess (cf. Finding God in the Mess by Jim Deeds and Brendan McManus SJ)!


  • Take some time out to reflect on the situation
  • Ask for help from others, get perspective, get good advice
  • Ask for the courage to work through difficult feelings and challenging options
  • Keep the communication open with the person, presence and solidarity counts for a lot, without taking over
  • Trust that God is working in the situation and the person to bring about a solution and revealing other options.