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Coffee, Crisis, & Character: “How can we help?” vs. “What do you have?”

Up until Friday night, I thought of myself as a coffee snob.

Unfortunately – or fortunately – or something, the reverse is true. As in, I apparently know nothing about coffee.

I don’t have a burr grinder. I prefer dark roast from Starbucks. I sometimes grind the coffee ahead of time. I can’t describe texture, taste or blend.

As a proud Vancouverite, this won’t do.

The epiphany came during an extended family visit near Coeur D’Alene, ID. Some of my husband’s family are heavily involved in coffee growth in Ethiopia. When they asked what I wanted for breakfast, I said Americano, dark roast.

Why do you prefer dark roast? they asked.

Uh, I didn’t really have an answer. I think it’s because I like the bold taste.

They brought me something different, and of course, it was the best coffee I had ever tasted in my whole life.

I guess I need to take a course on coffee, I said.

No, no, they replied. Just check out Coffee Geek.

So, I did. Guess what? Mr. CoffeeGeek is from Vancouver.

You coffee lovers probably just skipped on over to that blog, and I don’t blame you. But for those of you who stayed for a moment, I want to share something I thought interesting from what I did learn about coffee, all while in the middle of nowhere, somewhere east of the Washington-Idaho border.

My husband’s relatives work with a company called Dominion Trading. You can check out their product here. A few years ago, they realized that successive short-term relief work in a country struggling for success only created dependency on foreign aid. So instead of asking the people of Ethiopia how they could help, they asked, what do you have?

The answer? Coffee, of course.

And the rest is history, as they say.

It struck me that the compassionate among us usually ask this question first: how can we help?

It’s a great question. The initial stretch of ‘the new normal’ in crisis situations seem insurmountable without people who demonstrate their concern for us with action. Similarly, the aftermath of natural disasters almost require the influx of foreign aid.

How can I help? is also one of the questions that prompted me to choose a career in nursing.

But while training for that career, I learned that ‘doing for’ was only one of several nursing roles. The ultimate goal of nursing is to help our patients transition from the ‘doing for’ stage to the ‘doing ourselves’ stage.

Really, we’re trying to get our patients to the point where they can care for themselves.

It’s not as harsh – or as lazy – as it seems. It’s caring about long-term results.  Studies have shown that patients – or crisis victims – do best when they learn to help themselves.

Some of our patients don’t take too well to this idea. Almost every woman has a point in her labour where she thinks it’s time for us to finish the job. As a mother of two, I understand this stage well: I’m done with this, I can’t go on.

As the Nike spoof t-shirt says, it’s not ‘just do it.’ It’s YOU DO IT. (I do kind of like this t-shirt. It makes me laugh.)

But my job at that point in labour is to get that woman past that point. I need to get her to find that place that she can dig deeper (as those obnoxious TV trainers say) and do it herself. When she realizes her own strength, the results are pretty thrilling.

Similarly, post-op surgical patients (including post-Cesarean section moms) are encouraged to move as soon as possible. Often, that’s the day of surgery. For post C-Section moms, it’s usually within six hours. No, I’m not kidding. Decades, even years ago, we used to let our patients ‘rest’ for days, even weeks. Guess what? Turns out that rest only created more problems: blood clots, infections, and decreased muscle strength. Those patients that do still require multiple rest days are encouraged to do lots of ‘in-bed’ stretching, ankle and knee exercises to avoid those complications.

My point: recovery is faster and smoother when the one recovering is heavily involved in, or even takes charge of, the process.

David’s extended family uses this principle with Dominion Trading. By helping Ethiopian coffee farmers increase productivity, they help the country -through its individuals – help themselves.

I think this principle can extend to those of us lucky to live in North America too.

Many of us spend much of our lives feeling like the victim of our lives’ circumstances. Though hardship does seem to be distributed unfairly – sometimes like the growing disparity between rich and poor – we do have a choice on how to respond.

Sometimes we don’t need help. Sometimes we don’t need someone doing something for us. Sometimes we need to ask ourselves, ‘What do I have? What can I do to live with this thing?’

Like I said, the initial crisis period is not the time to ask this. I have a friend right now going through something whose horror I can not imagine. Now is not the time for her to figure out how to do this herself. That time might not come for a very, very long time. But I know her. She’ll get there. She already has, many times before.

And she’ll make the people around her better for it.

Until then, we ask, how can we help?

Even better, sometimes we just do without asking. Because sometimes when life stinks, we don’t know what we need help with. The best friends know what we need without our asking. They also know when to let us wrestle with the thing ourselves.

A big thank you to all of you who did – and still do – this for me. I’ve not forgotten. Each of you has taught me the power of community.

We do learn best when we learn together. Chances are greater that when we learn together, we laugh more. And when we laugh more, we remember it better.

In fact, some of my best lessons have been learned while sharing coffee. Speaking of which, I need to go improve my coffee-speak at CoffeeGeek.

How about you? Do you have a story of the power of community in your life? If you feel comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear about it.





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