Just trying to help

Exploring the complexities of doing good

July 5, 2011 | Feature | Number 14
By Will Braun | Special to Canadian Mennonite

My parents packed me, my sister and a Christmas hamper into the car. We were headed to an address provided by the local Cheer Board. The plan was for us to all go in for a short visit. I imagine the Cheer Board encouraged this to humanize the helping. Predictably, our venture took us to the run-down side of our Mennonite prairie town. I remember feeling less than enthusiastic, but I suppose I felt we were doing something necessary, something good. What I, as a boy of about 10, had not supposed, however, was that inside the homely little stucco house I would find my classmate Abe.

I don’t remember much of the visit except the drab house—the kind in which you sit down gingerly—and the dreadful awkwardness. I still cringe. I knew on some level that Abe would have gladly passed up the toys, turkey and Christmas oranges to avoid having his inferior social status so vividly exposed. At school he could try to fit in, but with me standing in his house he could not pretend. I felt shame for having shone a light on our differences. I suppose it was the same shame he felt, just from the other side.

I don’t recall the first day back at school after Christmas, but I’m sure Abe didn’t run up to me gushing with appreciation. I don’t know what happened to him. He may have moved back to the Mennonite colonies in Mexico.

On a prior Christmas, our family delivered a hamper to another home. That time, the father didn’t even emerge from the back room to greet us, and the teenage daughter refused to acknowledge the gift we brought her. The mother was left to manage the embarrassment. I don’t actually remember that visit, but my dad mentions it on occasion. For him, the star of the story was the young woman: her refusal of our gift was not so much rude as respectable. She was clinging to dignity. He says he would like to meet her now. I think he imagines she has done well for herself, that she carries herself well and possesses a lively wit.

Other families undoubtedly have heart-warming hamper stories, but not us. Those two cheerless encounters were enough. Our subsequent helping took different forms. It was a disturbing track record. How could our good intentions have fallen so flat? After all, we were just trying to help.

‘The sin in altruism’

Anyone who has worked in social services, international development or pastoral care knows that helping is complicated. Good intentions are not enough. But stories about sour recipients and uneasy encounters don’t make it into Cheer Board annual reports or promotional videos of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We—by which I mean North American Christians who are in a position to help—don’t often hear about the overseas partner who pockets the money we put in the offering bag; the prison inmate who requests a visitor, but later backs out, preferring uninterrupted incarceration to a chat with a well-meaning volunteer; or the underprivileged teenager who rebuffs all offers of help in favour of gang treachery. Nor do we hear of the volunteers who burn out, exasperated by the apathy or opportunism of those they have tried to help.

The stories we hear are the success stories of people who make good use of the money we donate and smile with gratitude when cameras appear. These stories deserve to be told. But so do the others.

The messy stories do not diminish the necessity of helping—we are called to help—but they acknowledge that helping is hard. To tell such stories is to be honest with ourselves and those we seek to help. Hopefully, that honesty leads to learning.

One factor that makes helping complicated is the mix of human motives.

“We may help simply because we want to feel good about ourselves,” writes Garret Keizer in his book Help: The Original Human Dilemma. Keizer is a former teacher, small-town minister and social worker. He has tried to help many people. And although the above quote may sound jaded, Keizer is not an armchair critic whose helpful idealism has frosted over with clever cynicism (although he names that danger). Rather, his book probes ways in which good intentions get tangled. Or, as he puts it, the book is about “locating the sin in altruism.”

Unless we claim 100 percent purity of motive, our good intentions will be tainted at least slightly, usually with some form of selfishness. Our impulse to help may be of God, but that does not make our altruism spotless.

Part of me helps because I like a pat on the back. I like to be seen as a good person, and I like to see myself as a good person. When I cut a cheque for a charity, I feel noble. That’s not all bad, but I can clearly detect the creeping danger of feeding my ego on my own perceived goodness. To admit mixed motives is not to negate the value of my efforts or the good part of my intentions. Rather, it is to chip away at the sin of pride in my altruism. It is the hard work of humility.

Promotional materials aimed at prospective helpers often say: “You can make a difference!” I find this cliché less useful than a quote I saw on a bookmark at a spiritual retreat centre years ago: “Are you choosing out of the resources of Christ’s life in you to recover from the need to make a difference?”

This is not to say we shouldn’t seek change in the world, but rather that when we feel a need to say, “That wouldn’t have happened without me,” something is askew. If our motivation for helping is that we can make a difference, then helping is about our ego needs, rather than serving others. I don’t think Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry so he could pat himself on the back and say, “I made a difference.”

Keizer says our objective should not be an “enhanced sense of our own potency.” The needs of the world are not an occasion for us to feel important and empowered, nor are they an occasion to have our name on a plaque or in a public list of donors.

There is a place for potency and competence in addressing poverty, but rather than highlighting our own effect, we should contemplate the humility that Catholic monk Thomas Merton writes of in his book New Seeds of Contemplation. Paraphrased for inclusivity, Merton states, “When humility delivers us from attachment to our own works and our own reputation, we discover that perfect joy is possible only when we have completely forgotten ourselves.” If we are not humble, we will unconsciously tend to “be virtuous not because we love God’s will, but because we want to admire our own virtues.”

‘I package it. You buy it.’

Stephanie Tombari says aid agencies sometimes pander to lesser motives. She used to be a senior writer for the Christian Reformed Church’s international aid organization. In a 2009 Geez magazine article about her work, she candidly describes a “McMarketing” approach in which a “target market” is given calculated, selective information about the poor. “I package it. You buy it,” she writes. “I send you another picture for your fridge that reminds you how good you are.”  

“Do you want to know what’s up with poverty,” she asks the donor, “or do you want to keep it simple and send a goat?”

Her critique underscores the need for us to examine our motives. Like Keizer and Merton, her words imply we should think carefully about the essence of helping.

Overcoming differences

Ideally, helping should overcome differences between people. It should humble helpers and empower the helped. It should nurture equality and unity. If helping is rewarding—as is often said—the reward ought to be a discovery of our own inner poverty and a oneness of all humanity in God. But to the extent that we help “in order to certify our own righteousness,” as Keizer puts it, we do the opposite: We isolate ourselves behind walls of pride.

On this point, helping becomes even more complicated. Although we want our help to overcome differences, it necessarily creates difference between people. It separates people, at least momentarily, into helpers and those helped—groups that are not equal.

In some cases, the difference between helper and helped is negligible. Imagine neighbours who semi-routinely shovel each other’s walkways. But usually the difference is obvious. The young woman who refused our family’s Christmas gift seemed to react to that difference. I think she resisted being cast in a lower position. She knew, as Jesus said, that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Jesus’ intent was probably not to say that being on the receiving end of charity can sting, but nonetheless, it is too easy to bask in the blessedness of our own generosity without recognizing that receiving can be difficult.

“The central paradox of helping the poor,” says Keizer, “is that our most humane gestures on their behalf serve to accentuate their dehumanization.” Even if our intent is to enable disadvantaged people to attain a position in life from which they, too, can help others, just by reaching out to help we are highlighting the fact that they are not there yet. The reach is always a reach downward. The message is that they are mere recipients, the less blessed. The message is that if they have any hope of climbing out of that hole, they need to swallow their pride, smile and say thanks. Some people seem happy to do this. Others do not.

An awkward privilege

To help is a privilege. Just ask someone who is poor, severely disabled or too old to help. Ask someone who is the recipient of help many times a day, but rarely has an opportunity to help others.

Privilege is awkward. This is the discomfort I felt as a boy at Abe’s house. I did not want to be different than him. Just like I don’t want to live in a world in which some people are far richer than most. But I do. So I try to help.

I also try to simplify my life. It must be said that often people are in need of help because of an economic system that works much better for some than others. This inequality can be addressed by the haves helping the have nots, or, more logically, by the over-consumers ceasing to take more than their share. Simple helping sometimes ignores the fact that our over-consumption fuels exploitation and one way to help is to live simply. But that feels less rewarding. It doesn’t fit neatly on a brochure.

Starving their dignity while feeding their bellies

We want helping to be simple. While in Brazil as an 18-year-old Mennonite Central Committee volunteer, I told my supervisor I was going to bring some groceries to a poor family I had met. He said the situation was more complicated than that. But I was compelled by the story of the family, so I brought them a little hamper anyway. “Give to those who beg of you,” Jesus says. I couldn’t just ignore the simple need before me.

The family happily accepted my charity. But did I do the best thing? Did I starve their dignity while feeding their bellies? Was I honest with myself about the situation and my motivations?

Or, in the case of my original example, should my family have shunned the Christmas hamper scheme from the beginning? Should we have befriended Abe’s family over time, so that it would have been natural to have them over for Christmas dinner? Should we have attended the sort of church they went to? Should we have advocated, as others have more recently, for better wages in sectors dominated by Mennonite immigrants from Mexico? Should we have lived at such a standard that we would not have been high enough to reach down to help them?

We want help to be simple. But it isn’t. Extricating the sin from our altruism is not simple, and, even if we do, the inherent inequality in most helping relationships remains. So where does that leave us? Keizer says imperfect help is better than no help. But this should not be used as an excuse to duck the complexities. Helpers who acknowledge and grapple with the complexities will be better helpers and hopefully better people than those who don’t.  

So what do we do about helping?

Ardently purify our motives. Simplify our lifestyles. Recover from the need to make a difference. Accept complexity. And, by the infinite grace of God, keep on trying.

Will Braun attends Hope Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man.. He can be reached at wbraun@inbox.com.

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Will, thank you for a beautifully written article which grapples with the complexities we have all felt as we get into these "helping situations". I am not a Mennonite, but the issues you address are ones with which we, too, have struggled.

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