When you see a fellow human struggling, many of us – we feel compelled to help. Whether it’s the people in Houston on top of the roof, just a few inches away from rising floodwaters, or a panhandler at the on ramp of the highway asking for change. A cancer patient. An addict. Mental health battles with nowhere to turn for help.
We feel compelled to help, because, (in my opinion) we were created to connect and care for one another. That empathy and compulsion to alleviate the suffering moves us to respond. Some of us deadened those feelings long ago, and retrained ourselves to believe it’s not our problem and it’s probably that person’s fault and they don’t deserve another chance to receive grace and mercy. But some of us hold those feelings alive in our hearts and we are moved to act. Perhaps we put our change in a cup. We suggest that the suicidal depressed woman “cheer up and pray more.” Maybe we send a box of old clothes to Texas, hoping they somehow find a human their size in need of our cardigan from college. We inquire about the cancer patient’s consumption of bottled water left in hot cars to help them target the cause of their body failing them.
I’m asking those who don’t feel the urge to care or help to consider that almost certainly, someone you love is struggling mightily, with one of those above overwhelming weighty life matters. The world we live in is becoming increasingly shadowed by these dark clouds of sickness, mental health decline, natural disasters, powerful drug addiction. You are impacted. This stuff isn’t going away. These evils will hit closer to home. I know it’s hard and scary to love people who are hurting and imperfect. You worry that you’ll get hurt because you might lose them. You don’t want to get involved in someone else’s mess. You have your own problems. But I ask you to allow compassion to foster in your heart. You don’t even have to get involved but lack of empathy is unhealthy. It may seem subtle, but you impact the world differently whether you see struggle and shrug with contempt, or sigh with care and smile compassionately.
And on the other hand, if you care. Are we caring effectively? What happens when you hand someone a dollar on the street? What might they be doing with that? Is it to buy something that helps or hurts them? I’m not interested in judging a panhandler for asking for money. But I do know that many people on the street support drug habits by panhandling, or simply fund an irresponsible lifestyle that is harmful to them. I don’t judge them for doing it at all. But I don’t want to help them with it. When you send that cardigan to Texas, did it help? Did it get to the right place? Or is it in a box sitting in some cargo storage room at the airport taking up space? Did someone reputable ask for it and explain how it would be used? How does a cancer patient feel when grilled about their diet or exposure to chemicals or genetics? Do you think they haven’t considered these matters? How do these questions make them feel? Is letting someone in active addiction or early recovery stay on your couch kindness or enabling? Asking a deeply depressed person if they have tried yoga/meditation/your church – what impact does this have?
Intent – wanting to help – does not always match impact. Our INTENTION to help may have the following impacts in these kinds of situations:
-Providing the dollar that goes toward a stamp bag of heroin laced with fentanyl that causes an accidental overdose.
-Demonstrating that you think a complex, heart wrenching problem is simple to fix when it is not.
-Sending unneeded, unusable items that end up creating work for people who are already overwhelmed.
-Causing someone to feel judged, guilty or shame when they are already struggling.
-Enabling someone to continue in a deeply destructive lifestyle because of our inability to say “no.”
I’m advocating that we all care deeply, and then we thoughtfully consider how we respond to any situation. Sometimes, our instinct to help stems from the desire to alleviate the discomfort we have with observing another person suffering. Can we look past that desire to remove our own uncomfortable feeling, and think through to a more effective action?
I suggest we investigate the best ways to help in all situations. Look for expert advice on the most effective way to have a positive impact. Here is some advice on how to help more thoughtfully and effectively:
If you send money to Texas, consider sending to a local nonprofit that has a high Charity Navigator rating and knows how to handle the different problems: rescue, shelter, food distribution, volunteer management, childcare, animal rescue, medical care. I suggest giving to the local rescue missions. They are working hard to help people, and they do that 365 days a year anyway.
If you want to help homeless people, give to an organization that wants to embrace and support the entire person on a journey of wellness, recovery and eventual independence. Many nonprofits do this. Light of Life is one. Community Human Services is another.
If you want to help a loved one struggling with addiction, don’t enable them. Seek support for yourself and find expert advice on how to encourage them to get help such as rehab. Be able to say no, and be ready to assist them when they make that decision. Al-Anon is a great resource.
Ask a cancer patient how you can be helpful. Give gifts they would like. Some people are hungry but too tired to cook and others might vomit if you came over with chicken soup. Ask. Send encouragement via text, email, etc. It’s OK to ask questions to try to understand what’s going on, but don’t act like you can figure out why they got cancer, or tell them how to cure it with some weird snake oil your friend sells. Just be supportive, pray, visit if they welcome it. Offer the ways you are willing to help and let them choose.
If someone you know is struggling with mental illness, be a friend, be forgiving, offer help with kids or pets or bills that need paid. Support their family. Offer to help figure it out.
Bottom line: Don’t not care. But when you care, care thoughtfully.