I have never liked the phrase "God helps those who help themselves." I have often heard it used as an excuse to ignore the plight of people suffering from famine or civil war or homelessness. It’s "those people" who are responsible for their own suffering, whether it be welfare moms or Sudanese refugees.
But I had it driven home to me this morning that we don’t help people who don’t help themselves.
On my subway ride to work this morning, a fairly normal looking middle-aged woman was sitting on a seat facing me, carrying a large-ish black backpack. She seemed a bit out-of-it, but didn’t we all on January 2nd?
At some point, a set of keys clattered to the floor near her. She rather unsteadily reached down to retrieve them, and as she did so a couple of papers fell out of her pocket. The woman picked up the keys and placed them in her backpack, and then realized her papers had fallen and stooped over to get them.
At this point, a folder over-stuffed with papers fell out of her backpack to the floor. She made quite a show of trying to retrieve all of the papers and placing them on the seat next to her. People in the seats around her began shifting around uncomfortably. Her keys fell out of her pack again. It seemed like the more stuff she picked up, the more fell to the ground.
What was interesting was seeing how new commuters geting on the train reacted to the situation. Several people saw the woman struggling to pick up her stuff from the floor, and then stooped down to help out. Most would realize that something was off with the woman after a minute and then move to the other end of the train. More stuff would fall on the floor, more newcomers would stop and help, rinse, repeat.
See, most people, even New Yorkers, are willing to help out a stranger in need if there is limited investment or risk involved. But as soon as it was clear that the stranger was in no position to take advantage of that help, or required much more help than could reasonably be offered, the generosity stopped. Folks help those who help themselves.
Which calls to mind my previous post about being a trusted resource to important people in your life. One corollary to this is that one tends to be a resource to people who are ready to take advantage of what you are offering. How many times has someone asked you for advice, only to have the person do the exact opposite of what you suggested? Or have you offered to help someone in a jam, only to find them in the exactly the same problem shortly afterwards?
People who are trapped in vicious cycles can drain your capacity to help without giving much in return. There isn’t much point in helping people who aren’t going to take responsibility for their own lives.
I had a friend in college who had serious money issues. He would come to me asking for a loan for something trivial like a book or a meal. I was doing much better than him, so I usually would spot him the money and forget about it. Sometimes he would pay me back, but most of the time he wouldn’t.
I made the mistake of letting him move into my apartment in our Junior year. He was good with the rent and the bills for the first couple of months. But then I started noticing that his share of the expenses often went unpaid for weeks after they were due, and that he started coming home very sporadically, often after I was asleep, and leaving before I was awake.
Being the younger, non-confrontational person I was back then, I let this go on much too long, imagining I was helping him through a rough patch in his life. Only after many, many months of this did I summon the energy to confront him and tell him to deal with his financial responsibilities or move out. He soon left and I never saw him or any of that money again.
It’s not enough to be a generous person. We all only have limited amounts of time, money and energy to spend on helping other people. We do no service to them or ourselves if we dissipate those resources on "kind acts" that don’t result in improved lives or situations.
As a somewhat related corollary to this post, some guy this morning apparently saved the life of someone who had fallen onto the subway tracks at 137th Street and Broadway by jumping down to the tracks and lying on top of him as a subway ran over both of them! They both emerged relatively unscathed back onto the platform! Now that’s a Good Samaritan.