Let's have a little thought experiment.
Let's say that you, as a normal person, come across a blog post on the Internet. Not from anyone you know - perhaps a friend of a friend, or something that's been spread around a few social networks. In the blog post, someone who finds themselves in a really awful situation financially is asking for help, and perhaps offering whatever small thanks they can in return for donations.
Now, you consider yourself to be a compassionate, generous person (whether you are or not doesn't matter - we're all subject to the Lake Wobegon Effect
, where we all think that we're better than average when it comes to desirable traits). But for whatever reason, you decide that this post, heartbreaking as it is, isn't something you feel inspired to donate to. Perhaps you're still paying off your Christmas spending. Perhaps you're saving for a vacation. Perhaps something about the person's story seems bogus to you. Perhaps you (likely subconsciously) figure you don't know this person and therefore aren't likely to get much in return from helping them. Perhaps things are just financially tight and you don't feel like you're in a place to hand out money. Perhaps you're afraid that if you give money to this
person, you'll have to give the same amount to the next
plea for help, and so on, and there won't be any left for you. Any number of reasons, many of which are perfectly valid. It's your money, after all.
The problem is, we're all socially conditioned (to an extent) to want
to be generous and compassionate. Partly so that other people will think well of us, and partly because it's how we want to think of ourselves. So when you don't wish to contribute, which your conscience tells you is greedy (because really, how many of us first-worlders honestly can't spare $10 to help that mother in need?), you put yourself in an uncomfortable situation, mentally. Your self-perception is clashing with your actions. In psychological terms, you're experiencing cognitive dissonance
There are several ways to deal with this uncomfortable state of affairs. You can:
[a] Donate anyway, thus quieting the worry that you're not as generous as you think you are
[b] Abandon the ideas of generosity and compassion as virtues you aspire to
[c] Find reasons why the author of the blog post isn't really
in need, thus proving that it's not you who is greedy, it's the person asking for handouts
Obviously, none of these options are ideal. If you go with [a], you'll feel like you've been manipulated into giving away money despite your better judgment, which doesn't make anyone happy. if you choose [b], you end up like the Randian libertarians, proudly claiming that anyone who struggles financially must be there because of their own choices and has no one to blame but themselves, despite that being patently untrue.*
Ergo, [c] is by far the easiest option, and therefore the one most people take. Because if that's what you're looking for, it's never difficult to look at someone's story and find reasons why they aren't really
deserving of help. Maybe they made some poor financial decisions. Perhaps something about their story doesn't add up, and therefore they're probably a scammer and you'd just be throwing away your money anyway. They're probably just like that couple you read about the other day, living in a million-dollar mansion and collecting welfare.** And even if they are genuine, why can't they go to a charity/get public assistance/etc. etc.?
Obviously there are significant flaws in this line of reasoning. No one is perfect; no one is going to always make the best decision 100% of the time. Sometimes a decision ends up being a poor one in retrospect, sometimes we make an objectively poor decision because we value something about it more than the society at large says we should. There's no such thing as the poor person who's done everything right, just as there's no such thing as the rich person who's there because they did everything right (Randians, take note of #6 on this list
). Outside influences and just plain luck both play a huge role in people's life circumstances, far greater than we pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-
conditioned Americans like to believe. But we tell ourselves (and each other) that these things must be true, despite knowing nothing about the specifics of a person's situation or being in any place whatsoever to judge them, because that makes us feel better about ourselves (and each other). And since we weren't going to donate anyway, what's the harm?
To answer that question, let's try another thought experiment.
Let's say that, through a combination of bad luck and poor decisions, you've ended up scraping together pennies from between the couch cushions to make certain you've enough to eat. You're sure (or praying, anyway) that this is a temporary poverty, that you'll be able to climb back up that mountain of unpaid bills
and get back to your usual middle-class life, because you certainly aren't poor
. But a boost to get you through this spot could make the difference between making it up that mountain and getting buried beneath it. Perhaps you don't qualify for assistance, or perhaps you simply can't get past the "only poor people need public assistance, and I'm not really poor" mental roadblock. For whatever reason, you're desperate enough to put up a blog post asking for help.***
Lots of people read it. Some of them pass it around on their social networks. Some people send you some money, money that might help you have electricity and water next month. Lots of people don't, for any of the above (and, again, perfectly valid) reasons. Some of those people who don't donate nonetheless post encouraging messages, offering other means of help or even just moral support.
And then, as the link gets passed around, and people further from your immediate social network read it, you start to get the negativity. People who've never been part of your life before going on about how you should have done this, or shouldn't have done that, despite having no idea what situation you might've been in when you made those decisions. You know that you should just ignore them, these people are talking out of their ass, but nonetheless they're powerful enough to wipe out all the good feeling generated by the previous encouraging posts - people are simply wired to respond more strongly to negative feedback than positive. Even if your decisions are worthy of questioning, chances are you've already gone over and over them in your mind as things got worse for you, so other people pointing out your mistakes is only going to increase the endless self-questioning and adrenaline and fear that's part of being in desperate financial straits
Look, everyone. It's easy to be an all-singing, all-dancing, all-knowing jerk. It's easy to assume that the people asking for your help wouldn't actually need it if they just worked a little harder. It's easy to think that the people begging for money on the street are all drunkards who'd just spend your spare $5 on booze instead of food. It's easy to write a self-righteous comment about how they should've just done xyz and everything would be better. It's easy, and it leaves your self-image intact, and it makes you feel virtuous. But all of that comes at the expense of the person with the the least to give - i.e. the person in need.
Thing is, I'm not saying we should all donate every time someone asks us to. There are so many worthy causes, so many people in need, that even if we wanted to we wouldn't be able to give to all of them. And we're human, too - just as the person asking for help might have made a poor financial decision that contributed to their current state, we might look at their post and think "I'd like to help, but I'd really rather buy that professional-quality hair straightener
I've had my eye on"****. It's our money, and ultimately no one gets to decide how we spend it but us.
So here's what I propose for option [d], which is a little harder than option [c], but ultimately makes everyone happier: Stop judging yourself.
You might think the answer is "stop judging others", but if you look at the chain of logic outlined above, you'll see that judging others lies inherently in self-judgment. You judge yourself as greedy for wanting a hair straightener (or whatever) more than you want to help someone, so you turn around and judge the person asking to alleviate that. But instead of making yourself feel better at their expense, you can do something that's a little bit harder, but that makes everyone happier: Stop judging yourself.
And when you do, you'll realize there are lots of ways you can contribute to making someone in a dire situation feel better that don't cost a cent.
Instead of assuming the homeless man with the sign is a drunk and hurrying past him, smile and make eye contact.*****
Instead of writing comments claiming the mother with medical bills
should take her kid out of private school and then everything will be hunky dory in her world, write something encouraging to her. Or spread the link around.
Instead of judging yourself, accept that you're human, and won't always do what you imagine to be the "right" thing. Find other ways to contribute, like writing a blog post persuading others to choose a mindset based in hope and abundance rather than fear and scarcity.
Virtue isn't a zero-sum game. No one's going to think less of you for not donating to a particular person or cause.****** But a smile or a kind word costs nothing, helps a person in a bad place feel like the world isn't completely out to get them, and makes everyone who sees you feel better besides.
It's difficult enough for someone to ask for help when they need it. Let's make it an occasion for hope, not despair.
*Judging by my admittedly unscientific surveys of various message boards, this mode of thinking has seen a huge surge in popularity over the past few years. I have a theory that this likely stems from the sudden impoverishment of a large section of the American populace and therefore rise in neediness over the past few years, which has thus inspired guilt in many people who haven't lost their jobs and/or aren't struggling financially. It's sad that so many people have gone with that option, but at least a little hopeful because it means they were feeling guilty in the first place, which means generosity as a virtue hasn't fallen completely
out of fashion.
**Which is likely a misleading story in and of itself - what if that couple lost all their money in the economic crash and are underwater on their loan so they can't sell the house and under loads of debt? Would you really begrudge them a few hundred dollars a month so they and their children could eat?
***And if you think you'd never be that
desperate, I can only congratulate you on your self-reliance and hope that you're never in a position to find out otherwise.
****Guilty, yes I am.
*****You'd be surprised how many of them will smile in return, even when you're not giving them money. When you're at that social level, just having your existence acknowledged
is a gift.
******And if they do, it's more a reflection on their own self-judgment than on you.