It’s easy for me to point and laugh at Nicholas and his ludicrous screw-up on the job site. However, my own track record that summer included a few memorable mistakes as well. One stands out in particular.

As I mentioned, cement trucks would roll in most afternoons to fill the moulds we had assembled that morning. The driver would get the truck as close as he could before extending a large chute to reach the rest of the way, lining it up over the wooden forms.

Once in position, he would flip a lever to start the flow of concrete. As the moulds filled, the rest of us would use shovels to spread the gravely goop evenly down the line. It was a straightforward process that typically went off without a hitch.

That was, of course, until one fateful day. The driver arrived on schedule, backed the truck in, lowered the chute and flipped the lever. Slowly, the grey slurry flowed down the chute.

And that’s when I noticed it. The chute was not in position over the forms, dangling instead several feet from the target. If I didn’t act fast, the concrete would pour onto the bare ground, creating a huge mess.

I sprang into action. Channelling my inner Batman, I ran over and grabbed the chute and started swinging it toward the forms. But as more and more concrete poured out of the truck, the chute became increasingly heavy. I pulled with all my might. Lord knows I did. 

But as the river of industrial muck crept toward the end of the chute, I realized in horror that my teenage noodle arms lacked enough strength to move it all the way to the forms. Instead, I had succeeded in positioning it directly over my boss’s open toolbox.

Concrete poured from the chute, filling Paul’s toolbox to overflowing. In response, he filled the job site with more profanity than usual. 

As for me, my heroics failed to garner the pat on the back I had hoped for.

The entire incident highlighted how well-meaning actions can sometimes backfire. Indeed, when you’re facing an obstacle, you may encounter people with the best intentions who actually make things worse. The family member who volunteers to help you move, only to break half your dishes … The friend who adds fuel to the fire when she takes it upon herself to patch things up with someone you’ve had a falling out with … The neighbour who thoughtfully weeds your garden without realizing he’s pulled up half your flowers.

Likewise, I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where your efforts to help somebody have had the opposite effect.

During my cancer treatment, these well-intentioned missteps took a variety of forms. For example, family would sometimes pop by unannounced for a visit when I was trying to sleep or feeling like hot garbage. Meanwhile, a friend attempted to put my mind at ease by constantly telling me “don’t worry,” which made it difficult to talk openly about my very real worries. 

Good intentions don’t always translate to good outcomes. If you’re going through a tough time, try to have open and honest conversations with loved ones about how they can help. And if you’re keen to help someone facing an obstacle, don’t assume to know what they need. Ask, listen and respect their boundaries.  

By the same token, don’t beat yourself up too much when you do slip up. Everybody puts their foot in their mouth. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody fills their boss’s toolbox with concrete. (No? just me?)

Helping others tackle obstacles

Being equipped to overcome obstacles in your own life is one thing. But what about when it’s a loved one facing a major life challenge? How can you help? Below are some ideas to get you started. 

Pitch in — During my time as an outpatient, Wednesdays were chemo days. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn and battle Toronto gridlock traffic from the north end of the city to Princess Margaret Hospital, where I’d spend all day. Most of it was spent waiting. Waiting to get my number called for blood work. Waiting to see the doctor at the clinic. Waiting for my chemo to arrive. Waiting for the chemo to finish. Waiting for the nurse to stick a needle in my butt. Waiting for my prescriptions. And then, finally, waiting once again in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get home. 

By the time I dragged myself through my front door, I was exhausted and starting to feel the effects of the chemicals that had just been pumped into me.

In one of my email updates to friends and families, I happened to mention how Wednesdays were typically pizza nights because I was just too pooped to make food for myself. Shortly after, my friend Janele offered to arrange having meals dropped off at my place. Amazing. Having one less thing to worry about on Wednesdays was wonderful.

Be there — “I don’t know what to say.” “I feel so helpless.” “I wish there was something I could do.” We’ve all been there. That awkward moment when you’re at a loss for words and feeling completely useless. But sometimes the thing people need most is a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on. You don’t have to come equipped with answers, pearls of wisdom or a magic bullet to solve the problem. Just be there.

I heard a story about a friend of mine who worked as a hospital chaplain. One patient lashed out at her, questioning why she was even there. After all, there was nothing she could do to fix the patient’s terminal illness. Her response? I’m not here to get you out of hell. I’m here to keep you company while you’re going through it.

Give them space — On the flip side, it’s easy to swing too far the other way — to smother a person in well-meaning attempts to help. Like everything in life, it’s all about balance. When I was in the hospital, I had to learn to say no to people who wanted to visit. Not because I didn’t want to see them, but because otherwise I’d never have any time for myself. Be there for them, but respect the fact that they might want some alone time.

Connect them with the right people — You might not be able to directly help, but do you know somebody who could? Leverage your connections. It was my friend’s mom who connected me with the doctors at Princess Margaret Hospital. And my brother who recommended a nutritionist friend to help me with my diet during treatment. Whether you’re helping your friend’s struggling start-up business by introducing him to your industry contacts or telling a co-worker about a great physiotherapist who worked wonders on your shoulder, rack your brain for helpful people you know.

Get creative — While I was in hospital, my sister Becky coordinated an awesome project to boost my spirits. She went around to my aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, grandma and parents and invited each of them to create a page for a book she put together, wishing me well on my health journey.

I laughed myself silly reading the many hilarious entries and felt my resolve strengthen as I read the many inspirational and motivational notes. If you’re looking for ways to help someone overcome an obstacle, get creative. Send a fun e-card. Film a video of friends giving encouraging shout-outs. Bake a good-luck cake. Plaster their bedroom with motivational quotes. 

Rally around a cause — When someone you care about is going through a tough time — especially when it’s health-related — the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. Rallying around a cause for your loved one is a great way to make important contributions. It could be spearheading a blood drive or signing up for a charity fun run in honour of your friend with cancer. It could be writing your MP or raising awareness through the media about the mental illness your dad is dealing with. It could be volunteering at a women’s shelter to show support for a co-worker getting out of an abusive relationship.

Of course, you don’t have to know someone to help them overcome obstacles. The world is full of challenges and people who could use a helping hand. Whether you’re volunteering with a community organization, donating to disaster relief overseas or simply offering your seat to the pregnant woman on the bus, there are always ways to make a difference.

Next: Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Badge of Awesome is the brainchild of Josh Martin, author of Simply Blunderful: A cancer survivor’s illustrated guide to flaming tennis balls, camping catastrophes and the many obstacles life throws our way. If you enjoy your life lessons mixed with a bit of humour, order your copy today!