Confessions of a She-Geek

August 22, 2015

The Greatest Help of All?

Lately a lot of thoughts have been swirling around my head about the concept of help and how it applies to daily life. On the surface, it seems pretty straightforward: help is providing assistance to someone in need. The assistance may be financial, physical, emotional, spiritual, or some combination thereof.

It’s a fundamental concept in a number of world religions. Most people agree that it is good to help those who need it; consensus seems to be that we are actually obligated to help one another. Some even say that’s our purpose in life. But when it comes to practical application, the nature of what it means to help is surprisingly divisive.

The arguing begins where the rubber meets the road. For example, government-sponsored social programs provide assistance, but only when someone can prove that they actually need it. Fair enough: there are a limited number of resources available, and squandering them on people who don’t really need the assistance means less is available for the people who really, really do. From a practicality standpoint, that just makes sense.

But a small percentage of people are gaming the system, successfully obtaining more help than they actually need. The response has been to add more regulations, making it harder to commit fraud – which unfortunately also makes it harder for the people who do need government assistance, to get it. For programs based on the principle that help should only be given to people who actually need it, the increasing amounts of red tape may well be a necessary evil.

Here’s where it gets a bit trickier: are we directed to give help to people who need it, or to people we deem worthy of it? For example, if someone commits a heinous crime, but also clearly is in dire need of counseling, are we obliged to provide it in addition to punishment? Or are we able to say that criminals may need help, but they don’t deserve it – and therefore we are justified in withholding it? Is helping criminals somehow diminishing the suffering they’ve caused to victims and their families?  Maybe this isn’t an either-or proposition; maybe we’re supposed to help both criminals and victims – an idea many would object to as adding insult to injury.

I struggle with the concept that help should be based on merit. I don’t like the notion that I’m deciding who is worthy and who isn’t, but I find myself falling into this way of thinking. I see a panhandler on a street corner and automatically question whether the person actually needs help, or is just claiming to need it. Is it my place to decide whether that person is telling the truth? Yes, it’s my money, and yes, I can decide what I should do with it. But if I’m commanded to give help when it’s needed, isn’t it enough that he (or she) says the need exists? The person may be telling the truth, after all. I have no proof that the person is lying; just my own suspicions combined with friend-of-a-friend tales where panhandlers drive off in shiny new Cadillacs.

There’s also only so much help one person can give. Ideally, the greatest possible degree of assistance should be given to the largest percentage of people. With that in mind, is it better to give a greater amount of help to a few people, or a smaller amount to more? Would it be better to focus my efforts on helping people half a world away, or more locally? Which would have the greatest impact? Which is more beneficial? And should one group have a higher priority?

Some people say it’s hypocritical for someone to spend vast amounts of time and energy working to help people half a world away instead of those in one’s own community. I don’t know that this is an either-or proposition, really. If some people focus on providing local assistance while others put their efforts overseas, everyone is still getting help. Overall, the goal is still being met.

I’ve also found in myself a rather ugly attitude that if I’m giving help, the people receiving it owe me gratitude and should be happy for for what they get. I become annoyed when I make a donation and receive a response that boils down to, “thanks for the money; can we have more?” I find myself grumbling that I already gave, and where does this organization get off coming back for more? That makes no sense. Clearly I thought the charity needed my help, or I wouldn’t have contributed in the first place. Why am I upset by receiving confirmation that I was right?

After all, if we’re here to help one another, I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing. That doesn’t oblige the recipient to express gratitude or pretend that the assistance I gave solved the problem entirely. More to the point, is the help I’m giving somehow contingent on receiving acknowledgement or reward? It shouldn’t be. Should I be upset if the person I’m helping seems to assume that he (or she) is entitled to assistance? Because if our purpose really is to help one another, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect assistance if assistance is supposed to be provided?

I don’t have any answers, really. About all I can do it try to fight the whole “I want to help, but only when I want to do it, and only to people I think deserve it, and only as much as I want to” thing. It’s an ugly bit of wrong thinking that needs to be weeded out. Wish me luck.

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