Most of us at some point in our lives have the impulse to reach out and help someone in need. Sometimes that someone is family, a child, a grandchild, a sibling, parent, etc. Sometimes the person is a friend. Sometimes the person could be an acquaintance or even a stranger down on their luck whose plight touches the heart. The point is that many of us feel a need or even compulsion to reach out a hand and try to ease the burden of their misfortune. With all the best intent, we give of our time, our emotions, our finances, and our energy to give them an opportunity to improve their situations. Sadly, that doesn’t always work out for that Good Samaritan, and sometimes, it hurts… a lot.
In the past year, I have unfortunately had to learn a lot of difficult lessons about this very topic. I never really considered myself to be naïve or a “soft touch.” I’ve actually spent a good deal of time in some rather unsavory company that has encouraged me to be cynical and wary of the individuals that brush past us in life resulting in negative balances in wallet or heart. I’m not a bleeding heart, and I’ve never thought of myself as someone of whom advantage could easily be taken. The last year or so has shown me the error of my suppositions and perceptions of my own judgment.
Several incidents contributed, but the big one was that I had opened my home (and heart) and offered assistance to some people who needed a second chance. It was a poor choice on my part. Not so much the attempting to help, but that my choice of recipient was ill advised. Not only did they continue to take any assistance offered without attempting to better their own situation; while we were on vacation in another state, they also walked out with my television, instruments, tent, and sleeping bags (yeah, I know)… not to mention my faith in humanity and sense of security in my own home.
Trust me, I’ve learned my lesson, but it still hurt me in some indefinable way when later (well after the incidents above) an acquaintance/casual friend called to ask if they could kip at the house due to some unfortunate circumstances of their own, to which I responded, “No.” I felt heartless and cruel shutting down this avenue of succor, but I had agreed to be strong in the face of the most pitiable tale. There were other options for them, and I was not the only source of shelter in the cold, cruel world. So, why did I feel like I should be put on a Most Wanted list for exceptional cruelty and pretty much sure that everyone would hate me because I turned someone away? It was an irrational burden of guilt that I put on myself, ruminating upon my response, but it was probably that long conditioning of the golden rule “Do unto others…” Oh dear. I could feel the negative karma points building. In my mind, I saw my character assassinated as a mean and heartless miser unwilling to assist a fellow creature.
Coincidentally, this topic actually came up with some friends on social media. The meme above actually started the conversation (no offense, but I’m not the biggest fan of Dr. Phil), but some really good points were batted about, and I “listened” and participated with rapt attention. First, I was amazed and gratified to know that I am not the only person on the planet that struggles with the balance of doing good, and self-preservation. Additionally, it was very nice to see some of the finer points of boundary-setting discussed.
Because, in truth, isn’t that really what we are talking about? It is all about boundaries. Each of us probably has some internal drive for our altruistic behaviors. For some it is paying it forward. For others, it is paying it back (because we’ve been there, and done that). There are people who are of a spiritual bent who are admonished by their faith to help those who are unable to help themselves and do good works for charity sake, and there are those who end up beggaring themselves attempting to help children, parents, siblings, and others because… they are our blood and family (or if not by blood, at least dear enough to feel like family). Lastly, there is an impulse to save a fellow human…just because. It is partially instinct (for most of the non-sociopathic folks out there), but it is also a societal construct that is reinforced by stories and modern media. Think about all those “Good Feels” type stories that are run through the morning programming, Headline News, and talk show circuits. Inside of each of us is a tiny little superhero trying to get out and make the world a better place… ok, maybe not all of us, but I’ve personally always wanted to be Batman, and I digress.
The thing is we want to be heroes. We don’t want to be the cold-hearted villain. That is where that guilt and recrimination in my own heart comes from. Logically, I know that there are other resources. Part of me is even a bit of a Darwinist (survival of those who have the strength or ingenuity to figure it out), but I don’t want to be the bad guy. I want to be the hero. I want to (for those of the biblical leaning) be the Good Samaritan, not the guys who walked by on the other side. But were they so very bad? I guess in the story, the guy in question was dying by the side of the road, and leaving someone to die is pretty rotten, but in the less life threatening instances of poor choices and missed opportunities, how much assistance is helping, and how much is enabling?
“It’s just the nature of some of us to try and try to help people that have no intention to improve or get well. Some of them even expect people to keep giving and giving and have no remorse about the after effects of the giver… Where is the line drawn at enabling? And…..why is tough love so devastating to the helpers/enablers’ hearts? [People] that pretend they want help/improvement and you invest in them and concern yourself with them but they continue to throw away the opportunity until they destroy all life lines… it’s painful…” – Friend 1.
“It’s just some of our nature to never give up hope that by being good to others will actual make a difference in that person’s life!… Especially as parents, it is hard to let go when we know in our heart that the path sometimes chosen will only lead to difficulty!” – Friend 2.
That is just it. We have people that we care about. We empathize with their situations, and we want them to do better and to have enough slack in that rope that they’ve reached the end of to pull themselves out of the jam. We believe them when they say, “If only I were given just a little help…” And we give…and give… and give some more. We give until we have given out, and all our energy and resources are put into the situation, but eventually we realize that the parties in question are taking the assistance and contributing absolutely nothing towards their own change and growth, and are very unlikely to leave the comfort of the caregiving to make it on their own.
“Because we instinctively want to fix people, but we can’t. It’s hard to just sit back, watch, and wait for them to fix themselves. Sometimes it takes a lifetime for people to change, if they ever do.” – Friend 3.
That makes it even more difficult. We care. We hate seeing people for whom we may have genuine affection struggle with the same page in the book of life and never quite get past it. We imagine ourselves in those situations and think that if those people are just given the same opportunities as more successful people have had, they will make the better choices and be successful in their own lives. However, experience and observation will tell you that it just isn’t always true. There are people who have been given no resources that make their own opportunities and make something positive out of their lives, and there are others who are given every chance in the world and continue to choose the path of self-destruction. For some of those that are assisted, it is absolutely true that they take the opportunities and they use them appropriately to pull themselves out of bad situations and into better lives. For others, they will continue to use that assistance and milk it until it runs dry… and then some.
“You guys need to learn about the ‘light switch’. If I stretch myself to help you and you shit all over it, I’m turning the switch to ‘off’. Once the switch is off, it stays off!” – Friend 4.
The “light switch” has another name. It is called “healthy boundaries.” Sometimes those boundaries are blurry and difficult to see. Sometimes, like the metaphor of the frog in the pan of water on a stove, that temperature just keeps increasing so gradually that you don’t realize that you are being boiled alive. That “switch” or boundary is our cue to recognize that we’ve done enough, and further efforts would be fostering dependence and/or detrimental to our own wellbeing. If altruism results in the depletion of resources to the point of endangering the stability of the giver, it benefits no one. At a certain point, we have to realize that continuing to bail someone out or attempting drag them out of a bad situation without their own active contributions towards the progress is just wasted effort. In the end, the recipient of the good will and help has to be willing to make the better choices and take a step on a better path on their own. If they are not willing to do that, no amount of effort from an outside party (namely us) is going to change their circumstances.
There are going to be people in our lives that no matter what we do to help, they are not going to change until they decide, or sadly hit rock bottom (from which they may never fully recover). Does that mean that no one should be charitable or offer assistance to someone in need? Of course not, and I’ll probably continue to help people out to the best of my abilities. I’m just going to exercise a little caution and try to be more aware of where I’m investing my time, energy, and resources. Remember, if we allow ourselves to be used up, we won’t be there for the next person in our lives for which our efforts might actually be beneficial. It isn’t cruelty to occasionally say “No.” It is just good boundaries for survival.