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If you are a person who prioritizes helping others in need, you probably have experienced a tension in your life. You want to help and serve others, but the need is so great. In fact, the needs of others are often greater than your ability to meet these needs. You have limits in your time, energy, and resources.

But it’s hard to say no. It feels selfish. This is especially tough if the need is serious and you have a genuine desire to meet the need. If you are a Christian, you might feel as if God has called you to meet the need. But you’re struggling to keep up with the expanding needs of others. Sometimes it feels like you are so focused on others, you aren’t taking care of yourself.

The Story of the Canoe

I was at a conference for adoptive and foster families last year, and one of the speakers used the metaphor of a canoe to address this dilemma.

He asked the audience to pretend that their family had a canoe, and were traveling down a river. All of a sudden, you notice a boy in the river. He’s struggling to stay afloat, and you’re worried that he might drown. So you paddle your canoe over to him, and help him into your canoe. It takes some time and effort to adjust to the extra person, but before long, you’re off down the river again. The speaker was using this example to get the audience to think about taking in a new foster placement, but I think the metaphor can work for any type of helping or service you find yourself called to do.

Back to the story. Things are going well in your canoe with the new boy, but a couple of miles down river, there’s another child in the river. This time it’s a little girl. She’s struggling to stay afloat too, and you’re worried that she might drown. So you paddle your canoe over to her, and help her into your canoe. It’s getting a little crowded, but you’re still okay. Back down the river you go.

But then it happens again. Another child struggling in the river, another child into your canoe. Then it happens again. And again. Before long, your canoe is overflowing, and the canoe starts to sink lower and lower down into the water. If you keep helping, without considering your capacity or limits, the whole canoe will capsize, dumping everyone into the water.

Understanding and Accepting Our Limits

This story is a lot like our lives. We might want to help everyone, but the reality is we have a limited capacity to help. We have a limited amount of time, energy, and resources. If we don’t consider our capacity and limits, we risk capsizing our canoe. Depending on your context, “capsizing” might look like a failed marriage, a nervous breakdown, a moral failure, or something else.

Like most things in life, the key is balance. It’s an awesome thing to help and serve others who are in need. Jesus taught that the two most important commandments were to love God and love others. Loving others doesn’t just involve positive feelings—it involves time, energy, money, and sacrifice.

But as you love and serve others, be mindful of your capacity and limits. You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you aren’t actually loving yourself. Put your oxygen mask on first before helping your neighbor. Prioritize self-care. Take time for just you and God. Take care of your marriage and immediate family. Be healthy and take care of your body.

In other words, help others AND take care of your own canoe.